There’s no worse feeling than seeing a starting running back go down with an injury. Aside from the awful real-world ramifications, which can range anywhere from a day-to-day ankle sprain or a season-ending ACL tear, losing a player at the most important position in fantasy can put your roster in a real bind. However, in a sport as violent as football, injuries are an unfortunate reality. How fantasy managers prepare for the worst could be the difference between a championship and missing the playoffs entirely.
There are different ways to assess handcuffs. Some running backs have day-one value, even as backups. Others are currently irrelevant, but one injury could make them a valued commodity in any league. With offseason activity slowly ramping up, here is the definitive ranking of the guys you (hopefully) won’t have to start in September.
Fantasy Football: Backup Running Back Tiers
Tier 1: Flex-worthy from day one
- Hunt is once again the undisputed best backup running back in the league, and it should come as no surprise. Despite Deshaun Watson casting a shadow over Cleveland’s offense, the Browns know how to feed their running backs regardless of who is under center. Hunt averaged nearly 14 points over eight games last season, and he remains one Nick Chubb injury away from flirting with low-end RB1 status. If you’re desperate, you could even have him as your RB2 with Chubb.
- Melvin Gordon isn’t flashy, nor is he likely to compete for a starting job with Javonte Williams gearing up for his sophomore season. Still, he’s a steady producer, one of the better pass-catching backs in the league and someone who’s been given consistent goal-line work with various coaching staffs. While a decrease in production is to be expected, new head coach Nathaniel Hacket should find a role for Gordon, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards last season. With Russell Wilson behind center, this is a strong flex play.
- Pollard and Dillon are in a somewhat similar situation, with each young rusher stuck behind an older, and more expensive, lead back. However, Pollard is in a more favorable spot, having finished the year as RB28 while Ezekiel Elliott showed clear signs of wear and tear. Dillon was the bane of many Aaron Jones owners’ existence, as Matt LaFleur seemed to alternate rushing production between the two from game to game. Still, his RB23 ranking, along with Green Bay saying goodbye to Davante Adams, should lead to plenty of work in 2022.
Tier 2: Boom-or-bust veterans and promising rookies
|5.||Darrell Henderson Jr.|
- Henderson Jr. had a nice year as the Rams’ lead back (RB27), but that was solely due to Cam Akers suffering a preseason injury. With Akers back, he becomes a backup, but one that should be given plenty of work in a high-powered offense.
- Based on name value alone, fantasy managers might be shocked to see Robinson this low. However, the former undrafted rookie is likely to start the season behind Travis Etienne Jr., a first-round pick in 2021 who missed all of last season due to injury. Given Robinson’s history of inconsistent work and a new coaching staff led by Doug Pederson, king of the running back committee, a #6 ranking on this list feels generous for JR.
- Of all the rookie running backs that don’t sit atop a depth chart, Allgeier has the clearest path to playing time. Cordarelle Patterson is a glorified receiver, and Mike Davis is gone in Atlanta. The gritty back out of BYU is the in-between the tackles runner that the Falcons need, and it’s hard to see anyone else on Atlanta’s roster getting more opportunities at the goalline. A potential day-one flex play in 14+ team leagues.
- Rashaad Penny was a league-winner in 2021, as he was the fantasy RB1 from Week 14 to 18. However, the Seahawks drafted Michigan State standout Kenneth Walker III in the second round of the draft, with clear plans to make him the focal point of their offense. That shouldn’t rule out Penny being fantasy-relevant, and he may even win the job in training camp. However, should he start the season as a backup, touchdowns might be hard to come by in a Russell Wilson-less offense.
- James Cook, another second-round rookie, enters the NFL with a clear role: pass-catcher. In a crowded Georgia backfield, he managed to snag 27 passes and four touchdowns over 15 games. In the Bills offense, he should become an immediate weapon for Josh Allen, who has lacked a reliable receiving back. Devin Singletary finally emerged as a quality fantasy starter last season, but Cook is a nice backup to have in PPR leagues.
- Pierce was one of the most efficient running backs in the country with Florida, so much so that his lack of usage may have been a contributing factor in the firing of head coach Dan Mullen last year. The Texans offense is fairly devoid of talent, but Davis Mills is, if nothing else, a capable starter, and Laremy Tunsil remains a quality left tackle. With only Marlon Mack ahead of him on the depth chart, Pierce could run away with the starting job in Houston.
Tier 3: Potential contributors
|12.||Ronald Jones II|
|14||Brian Robinson Jr.|
- Hines had a disappointing season in 2021, as Jonathan Taylor ran away with the Colts’ starting job en route to a fantasy RB1 season. While JT is still poised for another fantastic year, expect to see more of Hines this year now that Matt Ryan is under center. Unlike Carson Wentz, Ryan is more willing to check down to his running backs, which allowed for Cordarelle Patterson to enjoy a breakout campaign in his 30s. The more explosive Hines should be in line for a similar boost in production, and Colts head coach Frank Reich has even said that he would draft him in fantasy football.
Ronald Jones II
- Jones II had a mediocre season in Tampa Bay, but he’s shown flashes before. In a high-powered Kansas City offense with only the inconsistent Clyde Edwards-Helaire in front of him, RoJo has sleeper potential.
- Jamaal Williams isn’t an exciting handcuff, but Dan Campbell has always prioritized giving him touches even with D’Andre Swift in the backfield. He was the fantasy RB37 in games Swift played, and if the Lions starter was to go down with an injury, Williams would immediately become an RB2.
Brian Robinson Jr.
- The 2021 season didn’t go quite as planned for Antonio Gibson. Despite a respectable RB17 finish, he struggled with fumbles and didn’t reach the lofty RB1 heights some had envisioned in the preseason. Entering a suddenly crowded Commanders RB room is Brian Robinson Jr., a steady runner from Alabama that could find goalline opportunities relatively quickly based on his Round 3 selection in April. He shouldn’t sniff a flex spot, but Robinson Jr. is certainly someone you want to stash on your bench.
- Rhamondre Stevenson had an up-and-down, but ultimately successful, rookie season, rushing for over 600 yards. Damien Harris is still the Patriots’ RB1, but the two split carries fairly evenly over the team’s final seven games. The unpredictability of Bill Bellichick’s personnel decisions limits the desire to draft Stevenson, but he should be rostered in most PPR formats.
Tier 4: Possible, but unlikely, contributors
- Eno Benjamin didn’t ‘wow’ anyone during his rookie season, but the former seventh-rounder should have a much larger role now that Chase Edmonds is in Miami. He shined as a dual-threat running back while at Arizona State, and it’s no secret that Kyler Murray enjoys throwing to his backfield. Don’t expect Edmonds-like numbers, but Benjamin has a clear skillset that fits the Arizona offense.
- If injuries didn’t exist, Mostert may find himself inside the top 10 of these rankings based on pure talent. However, he’s played in just nine games over the past two seasons. Although Chase Edmonds projects as more of a pass-catcher, it’s a precarious situation for Mostert in Miami, as Myles Gaskin and Sony Michel are still around. Keep tabs on the Dolphins running backs this summer and see who might win some extra touches.
- Rachaad White is one of the more intriguing rookies from this year’s draft class, as any offensive weapon on the Buccaneers is worthy of some fantasy consideration. While playing behind Leonard Fournette will cap his immediate impact, he’s a better pass catcher than Jones II. Sneaky PPR value with clear RB2 potential if Fournette goes down with an injury.
- Isaiah Spiller isn’t the most athletic or dynamic running back, but he is a force inside the red zone. With Justin Jackson gone, the door is open for a goalline scorer on the Chargers’ explosive offense. Don’t expect him to be startable, but there are worse fill-in flex options to draft than Spiller.
Jeff Wilson Jr.
- The 49ers are weird, and their running back situation is a consistent headache for fantasy managers. However, whenever Wilson Jr. has gotten the chance to start, he’s generally done well. He should only be a priority add for Elijah Mitchell owners, but Jeff is a guy who’s worth fighting over in some fantasy leagues.