Friday, August 19, 2022

Fantasy Football 2022: Why Jonathan Taylor is RB1, and who else has a case

The Colts hit the reset button this season, and everything feels new in Indianapolis. The Carson Wentz era, which owner Jim Irsay called “a mistake,” is over. The embarrassing 26-11 season-finale loss to the Jaguars that kept the Colts out of the 2021 playoffs has been scrubbed from their memories. The team has been invigorated with new quarterback Matt Ryan and a fresh start in 2022.

All the Colts want to do is focus on what’s ahead. But maybe something from last year should carry over to this season. A repeat performance from standout running back Jonathan Taylor would be great for the Colts – and Fantasy managers as well.

Taylor was one of the lone bright spots in Indianapolis last season when he led the NFL in rushing yards (1,811) and rushing touchdowns (18). And his 2,171 total yards were the fourth-most by a running back over the past 10 years. At one point last season, when the Colts looked like a playoff contender, Taylor was being mentioned as an MVP candidate.

He led all Fantasy running backs with 373 PPR points (21.9 PPR points per game), which was 40 points better than Austin Ekeler at No. 2. And Taylor, who led the NFL in carries with 332, also had career highs in targets (51), receptions (40), receiving yards (360) and receiving touchdowns (two). 

Now, we want to see if the 23-year-old Taylor can do it again. He’s curious himself, but Taylor believes he’s poised for another outstanding campaign, especially with the addition of Ryan. Fantasy managers are confident in Taylor, and he will be the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the majority of leagues, although there are some serious contenders for the throne.

While the Colts want to evolve as an offense under Ryan, they know Taylor is the key to their success. And they don’t plan to get away from giving him the ball as much as they can.

“It’s awesome when you have a guy like that,” Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said in an interview with CBS Sports. “It’s nice to have that as a weapon.”

That weapon was explosive for the Colts in 2021 when he proved he was the best running back in the NFL. According to Next Gen Stats, he led all running backs in rush yards over expected (481), rushes of 20-plus miles per hour (six), rush yards after contact (1,418) and first downs gained via rushing (107). His 6.8 yards per rush against light boxes (six or fewer defenders in the box) is a single-season record for Next Gen Stats, which dates back to 2016.

He also had 50 runs of 10-plus yards, and he added 48 runs of 15-plus mph. His speed, power combination is impressive, and he benefits from playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

“As a person, he’s probably in the highest percentile as far as character,” Colts running backs coach Scottie Montgomery told CBS Sports about Taylor. “Probably the highest character player I’ve ever been around. When he steps on the football field that’s completely different. He’s extremely attentive to detail. He’s just the highest level of competitor that you see. There’s times in the game where he’s carrying it five, six, seven times in a row. He wouldn’t imagine coming out of the game because he feels like he gives us the best chance to win.”

Taylor tried to will the Colts to the playoffs last year. The team was 3-5 entering Week 9 against the Jets, and Taylor had just two games with more than 20 total touches at that point. But he closed the season with at least 20 total touches in eight of his final nine games, including six outings with at least 20 carries, and Indianapolis was 6-3 over that stretch. In the Week 17 loss to Jacksonville, Taylor had 18 total touches and just 95 total yards and no touchdowns.

When Taylor was rolling and the Colts were winning, he started hearing his name in the MVP conversation. It was hard to ignore, especially with performances he had in wins against the Bills in Week 11 (185 rushing yards and five total touchdowns) and the Patriots in Week 15 (170 rushing yards and a touchdown). Taylor didn’t get an MVP vote, but he finished second to Cooper Kupp in NFL Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year.

“It was insane to think you would be in that conversation at that point,” Taylor told CBS Sports in a phone interview about the MVP race, which eventually went to Aaron Rodgers. “To be able to be mentioned in that conversation … you’re talking about some of the best people to play the game. It was amazing. It would be a dream to achieve that award.”

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Taylor was thrilled with his personal success last year, but he felt like he didn’t do enough because the team missed the playoffs. That’s his goal this season is a return to the postseason – Indianapolis lost in the wild-card round to Buffalo in his rookie year in 2020 – and a hopeful Super Bowl run.

And Taylor said adding Ryan, who was the NFL MVP in 2016 when he led the Falcons to the Super Bowl, should help in a major way. Taylor compared Ryan to Philip Rivers, who was the Colts quarterback during Taylor’s rookie season, because of his leadership.

“He’s played in this league for a long time at a high level,” Taylor said. “To have a guy like that in your building, in your huddle, that energy just comes off like we’re on 100 percent of the time. I know 100 percent that Matt Ryan is going to be spot on. Just having that energy in the building, it makes you want to lock on and do even more. It’s going to elevate the entire team. It’s going to be tremendous for the team.”

Added Brady: “When you get a proven quarterback like Matt that’s been in the league for a long time and had success, it opens up the offense. Teams were loading up the line of scrimmage (last year). Getting Matt here will create more opportunities for JT with a lesser box. It will improve in the passing game for him as well. Matt does a great job of throwing underneath. It will open things up for (Taylor).”

The role in the passing game is something to monitor for Taylor this season. Nyheim Hines is established as the pass-catching back for the Colts, and the two have worked well together over the past two seasons. In 2020 with Rivers, Taylor had 36 catches for 299 yards and a touchdown on 39 targets, while Hines had 63 catches for 482 yards and four touchdowns on 76 targets.

Then last year with Wentz, Hines saw a steep decline in production with just 40 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown on 57 targets, which wasn’t far off from Taylor. Colts coach Frank Reich has already said to expect more from Hines in 2022, adding “if I was going to be in a Fantasy league, I think I’d pick Nyheim this year. I think I’d consider drafting Nyheim.”

Reich went on to say “we got probably a tad more run-centric than we wanted to be, than I wanted us to be” last year, but that doesn’t mean that more Hines is bad for Taylor. Reich just wants to see the ball more in Hines’ hands in the passing game, which makes sense when the Colts receiving corps features Michael Pittman and then question marks in Alec Pierce and Parris Campbell.

Montgomery said “both of these guys can show up in the passing game at the same time” of Taylor and Hines. Montgomery also said of Taylor “we feel like we can feature him more in the passing game now” after the way he played in 2022.

And Montgomery said of giving Taylor a break, “I don’t need to run him into the ground. Coach Reich reminds us of that. Let’s make sure he’s available.”

Fantasy owners want to make sure Taylor is available for all 17 games again like he was in 2021. And hopefully he proves he’s the best running back in the NFL for the second year in a row. But not everyone has Taylor as the No. 1 running back.

CBS Sports Senior NFL Analyst Pete Prisco had Derrick Henry ranked ahead of Taylor in his Top 100 players for 2022. Henry was No. 22 overall, with Taylor right behind at No. 24. Prisco noted that Henry was on pace for a second consecutive 2,000-yard season in 2021 when he injured his foot after eight games (937 yards and eight touchdowns), and he also led all Fantasy running backs with 24.3 PPR points per game.

“He was the best back when he got hurt,” Prisco said of Henry. “I still think he will be that guy. It’s close.”

Taylor, Henry, Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey and several others will vie for the No. 1 Fantasy running back spot this season. And history isn’t on Taylor’s side to repeat in 2022. The last running back to finish No. 1 in PPR in consecutive seasons was Priest Holmes in 2002-03.

Can Taylor do it again? Will he remain a significant factor in the passing game? Is Ryan going to be a difference maker for the Colts offense and make Taylor even better?

These are all viable questions for Taylor. But he’s young, plays behind a standout offensive line and has shown he can be a durable workhorse. He’s worth drafting at No. 1 overall in all leagues. 

“It’s encouraging,” Taylor said about the start of his career. “You know you’re on the right track. All you want to do is find a way to get 1 percent better every day. … That’s why I want to put my best foot forward every time I’m on the field.”

The Colts are looking forward to this season. The 2021 campaign is behind them. But if they can improve as a team, with Taylor leading the way again, then everyone wins in Fantasy and reality, which is what we all want for the No. 1 running back in the NFL.

Other candidates for the No. 1 spot

If McCaffrey stays healthy then he will be the No. 1 running back this season – and likely No. 1 overall non-quarterback. He averaged 29.4 PPR points per game in his record-breaking season in 2019, and he was at 29.7 PPR points per game in just three outings in 2020. McCaffrey started and finished five games in 2021, and he scored at least 24 PPR points per game in four of those contests. He has a higher ceiling than Taylor, but the risk with drafting McCaffrey at No. 1 overall is he could get hurt again after playing in just 10 games over the past two years. We hope McCaffrey can play close to 17 games, and his role in the passing game gives him such an edge over every running back, including Taylor. McCaffrey is the only running back I would consider drafting ahead of Taylor this year.

Ekeler finally broke out last season with career highs in carries (206), rushing yards (911) and rushing touchdowns (12), and he also added 70 catches for 647 yards and eight touchdowns on 94 targets. He should have the chance to repeat his production, and he averaged 21.4 PPR points per game in 2021. Ekeler might have to deal with a potential threat to his touches from rookie Isaiah Spiller, but we still expect Ekeler to be the catalyst of an explosive Chargers offense. The hope would be Ekeler doesn’t see a steep decline in touchdowns because getting 20 scores again is hard to replicate. But after McCaffrey, Ekeler’s dual-threat ability is something we covet, and his role in the passing game could give him an edge over Taylor. They were close in Fantasy points per game in 2021, but Ekeler might catch Taylor this season and finish as the No. 1 PPR running back.

We’re thrilled Henry is back after missing nine games last season with a foot injury, and hopefully he can repeat his production from the eight games he played in 2021. Henry averaged a career-best 24.3 PPR points per game last year, and he was one catch away from matching his career high in receptions (19). It was great to see him more involved in the passing game, and we hope that continues, especially with A.J. Brown gone. Henry has averaged at least 19.6 PPR points per game over the past three seasons, so you know what you’re getting, and he should continue to dominate the workload for the Titans. We just hope the foot injury he sustained in 2021 isn’t a sign of his body breaking down, and he’s 28 now. In non- and 0.5-PPR leagues, it’s easy to justify drafting Henry ahead of Taylor. It’s harder to do in PPR, but Henry showed last year he could average more Fantasy points per game than Taylor. If healthy, Henry could again outscore Taylor this year.

Harris was great as a rookie last season, and he was one of three running backs with at least 300 PPR points, including Taylor and Ekeler. Unlike Taylor and Ekeler, Harris did not top 21 PPR points per game (17.7), but he led all running backs in receptions (74) and tied Ekeler in targets (94). We hope Harris continues to have a significant role in the passing game with Kenny Pickett or Mitchell Trubisky under center in place of Ben Roethlisberger, and he should remain a workhorse in Pittsburgh. And hopefully the change in quarterback can make the Steelers offense more explosive. Like Taylor, youth is on Harris’ side at 24 (Taylor is 23), and we tend to see running backs 25 and under finish at No. 1. Taylor was No. 1 in his second season, and maybe Harris is the sophomore sensation in 2022.

I’m excited about the Minnesota offense this season under new coach Kevin O’Connell, and I expect Cook to have a big year. He’s coming off a down season in 2021 when he averaged just 15.8 PPR points per game, but this was after consecutive seasons of averaging at least 20.8 PPR points per game, including 24.1 PPR points per game in 2020. The biggest difference was the lack of touchdowns in 2021 when he scored just six after scoring 30 combined over the past two years. I also expect Cook to potentially have a career year in the passing game, and he could have his second season with at least 50 catches. He has to stay healthy, which has been a problem for Cook, but the upside is evident. This could be his last year to challenge for the No. 1 spot, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Cook had over 2,000 total yards and 15-plus touchdowns in 2022.

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