Saturday, August 20, 2022

Ranking NFL’s top 5 rookie RBs of 2022 by expected production: Backs on the best offenses will thrive

No first-round running backs doesn’t mean the 2022 rookie class of running backs was down, it just indicates the league has smartened on where the position’s genuine value is in the draft. There were six ball carriers picked on Day 2 with varying size, speed, and running styles. 

These are the five running backs who’ll be most productive in Year 1. 

5. James Cook, Bills

In fantasy football, you want to draft backs who are part of high-quality offenses, even if they’re aren’t obvious feature-back roles. That’s precisely the reasoning why Cook’s on this list. The Bills have one of football’s most fun, explosive attacks. That will lead to Buffalo playing with leads in the second half often and for as many mouths as there are to feed, Cook’s 4.42 speed out of the backfield will add a new component for Josh Allen

And Cook’s part-receiver, part-back, with silky-soft hands and experience running routes in the slot and the perimeter. Cook won’t be a high-volume type, but expect plays to be tailored for him in new OC Ken Dorsey’s game plan. Buffalo’s offensive line is solid too. And it’s not like defenses will feel comfortable loading the box against the Bills. Last year, Devin Singletary saw a loaded box on just under 14% of his runs, the eighth-lowest rate among qualifying backs.

4. Dameon Pierce, Texans

The Texans offensive line is not great — repeat analysis from the past decade, basically — but Pierce finds himself in a stellar opportunity to be the No. 1 back right out of college. The veterans in front of him are Rex Burkhead and Marlon Mack. Sure, they’re both talented runners, but neither of their reputations should establish them as fortified, unpassable-on-the-depth-chart features of the offense. 

And Pierce is one of the most unique backs I’ve scouted, at 5-10 and 218 pounds with lightning quick feet paired with an old-school power back approach to dealing with contact. He forced a missed tackle on 39% of his runs in 2022, the third-highest figure in the class, much higher than the likes of Ken Walker and Breece Hall. If the Texans offensive line was better, he’d be higher on this list. Pierce won’t hit many long-gainers, but he’ll make the most of what’s blocked for him often. 

3. Isaiah Spiller, Chargers

Spiller’s another back with plenty of talent around him who I love to be a major producer in Year 1. He was my RB1 in the 2022 draft class, thanks to the most well-rounded game of any back I evaluated. He tested poorly, but I trusted the tape with him. Over the past three seasons at Texas A&M, Spiller averaged 5.5 yards per carry on over 500 carries and caught at least 20 passes each year. 

Sure, there’s Austin Ekeler standing in his way of major contributions, but don’t be surprised if Ekeler transitions to more of a receiver role in 2022. At 6-foot and 217 pounds with ample between-the-tackles experience, expect Spiller to slowly but surely become the main inside running threat in the Chargers potent attack. Like many renovation projects, the Chargers’ offensive line construction has taken longer than expected, but Rashawn Slater, Corey Linsley, and first-round pick Zion Johnson will routinely move front-seven players in 2022. 

2. Rachaad White, Buccaneers 

Yes, Playoff Lenny remains on the Buccaneers roster, but keep tabs on White as the next marquee contributor out of the backfield in a Tom Brady offense. Why’s that? Two reasons. White’s a highly capable athletic specimen and he was born to be an asset in the pass game. As the bell cow in Arizona State’s offense last season, White averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 182 rushes caught 43 passes at a beefy 10.6 yards-per-grab average, and he only had three drops. In short, White thrives in space — which is not Fournette’s forte. 

Based on his size and athleticism, White’s measurements and combine workout was 94.2% similar to Deebo Samuel when he entered the league in 2019, and White has a comparable pinball style with the ball in his hands. Plus, he’s playing in one of the league’s most dynamic offenses with an elite offensive line.

1. Breece Hall, Jets

Hall has the complete, feature-back skill set. No doubting that. It was clear to see over the past three years at Iowa State, when he averaged over 1,300 yards at right around 5.5 yards per tote. He’s decisive, runs with quality vision, has requisite elusiveness for a bigger, thicker back, and possesses low-key impressive long speed. Hall had 22 runs of 15-plus yards in 2022, the seventh-most in the draft class.

In New York, Hall will assume No. 1 back duties from the jump. The Jets offensive line isn’t a congealed, top-end unit yet, but it’s on the rise. The guard situation — Laken Tomlinson and promising second-year pro Alijah Vera-Tucker — will be on the move often, plowing lanes for Hall between the tackles and on outside pitches. On what should be an improved offense altogether, Hall will be the most productive rookie runner. 

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