Last week, I broke down some rookie wide receivers who have both fantasy and betting value for the 2022 NFL season. This week, let’s talk about the newest class of NFL running backs.
In the fantasy world, running backs are so coveted and fly off the board in the first round for two reasons: The first is that the pool of reliable and elite backs is limited, but more importantly, they’re the ones found in the endzone most often. The last time a tight end or wideout led the league in points (without a tie) was Hall of Famer Randy Moss in 2007.
When it comes to betting, wagering on running backs can be very profitable if you can spot the right opportunity. For example, if a certain back is facing poor run defense, you can expect his team to adjust its offense accordingly and use the ground game to attack that weakness. Another good edge to identify is in the game script. If you think a big favorite will be playing from ahead, they will likely end up running the ball more.
Compared to a position like quarterback or wide receiver, the running back position is one that is typically easier to adapt to in the NFL. In recent years, young running backs have been even more valuable. The average age of a top-15 running back is roughly 24 years old over the past five years.
With that in mind, let’s get into some of the studs from this year’s NFL draft.
Breece Hall, New York Jets
Hall was the first running back off the (real) draft board, and the Jets traded up for him for a reason. He set an FBS record at Iowa State with a touchdown in 24 straight games while also ranking fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game last season. As far as game script goes, the Jets (despite doing well in the draft) are still expected to be one of the weaker teams in a loaded AFC. While that means Zach Wilson will likely have to use his arm more often than not, he’s the same quarterback who last year reached 200 yards in the air in fewer than half of his games. He threw 11 interceptions and only nine touchdowns. With talent like Hall in the backfield, Robert Saleh and crew would be crazy not to lean on the run game.
James Cook, Buffalo Bills
When it comes to fantasy, you want to pick up a running back who will see a high volume of touches. As a result, it’s tough to make an argument for Cook with Devin Singletary in the RB1 role. However, he’s a player to keep an eye on. The team is a Super Bowl favorite for a reason. Buffalo has one of the best roster and a high-quality offense that is expected to play with a lead often and should have an effective run game behind a solid offensive line. After three years of limited action at Georgia, Cook broke out in 2021, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring seven rushing touchdowns, despite starting only three games. What makes him even more valuable is his potential impact in the passing game, where he averaged 10.9 yards per catch. If you don’t grab him in fantasy, there should be plenty of opportunity to find an edge with him game to game.
Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle finished 2021 in the bottom 10 in passing yards per game with Russell Wilson. I expect the team will follow a similar style of play this season and lean on the run game even more, with either Geno Smith or Drew Lock under center. Last season, they finished just outside of the top 10 in rush yards per game and that was even with their lead back, Rashaad Penny out for seven games. Penny is expected to get the majority of carries to start the year, but he has struggled with health since entering the league in 2018, playing in just 37 of 65 possible games. If Seattle looks to preserve Penny, it has a great option with Walker. Last season at Michigan State, Walker finished second in FBS in rushing yards and while ranking first in yards after contact and broken tackles. He also led all FBS players in carries of 10-plus yards (46) and 15-plus yards (30). Head coach Pete Carroll has had nothing but rave reviews about the rookie so far: “You talk about surprises, I’m surprised. I’m surprised he’s so well rounded … He could play all three downs, and we’d feel comfortable with it,” Caroll recently told reporters, per the Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta. I believe Walker will get a healthy number of reps early and may even take on that top-back role sooner than later.