How to Spot a League Winner in 2022: RBs (Fantasy Football)
The phrase “league winner” gets bandied about a lot in fantasy football circles, often carelessly. Sometimes, analysts use this phrase as nothing more than an attention-getter to hype some mediocre player they love. But when used properly, there is truth to this concept – the idea that one single player can dominate for your team enough to nearly guarantee, on his own, a championship for your fantasy team.
Of course, no player can truly win a fantasy championship alone. Even Christian McCaffery’s historic 2019 season, where he scored a ridiculous 413.2 fantasy points, was only enough to get 48% of his managers into fantasy championships (still an absurd number, by the way). So, fantasy managers still must put together a solid team around a “league winner”, work the waiver wire, and play the matchups. Nevertheless, rostering some players undoubtedly gives fantasy teams an increased chance at a fantasy championship, just like McCaffery nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.
Last year, I wrote this series and got a lot of great feedback – and the people have demanded its return! I am happy to append my research from last year with 2021’s numbers. Rather than re-post all the numbers in the previous article’s tables, I will simply provide the link here, which you can use to look at it again.
Redefining an RB League Winner
From my analysis, league-winning players typically separate themselves from the pack. That means that the top 1-3 players each year, at any given offensive position, generally score at least 30 points more than their next closest competitor, where the end-of-year rankings start to bunch up. That’s good! We want our “league winner” not just to score a few more points than RB3 or WR2; we want them to score way more points. That means these types of players really do have “league winning upside”.
Last year, we set an arbitrary 300 fantasy point threshold to determine which running backs were league winners. That resulted in twelve league-winning running backs from 2016-2020 (see list here). In 2021, two more names eclipsed 300 fantasy points: Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler. Like before, these two players truly separated themselves from the pack. In fact, Jonathan Taylor scored a whopping 44 more points than Austin Ekeler, the RB2. Meanwhile, Ekeler himself was no slouch, scoring 41.9 more fantasy points than 2021’s RB3, Joe Mixon (notably, it is at RB3 where the bell curve starts to flatten, and the RB scores start to clump together). 2021 confirmed the previous year’s finding – that the tippy top RBs, those true league winners, really separate themselves as incredible performers. We want to find that again.
The better news is that 2021 confirmed that 300 fantasy points are a great threshold for segregating league winners from “the rest”, at least at the RB position. That means we are trying to find RBs in 2022 who will score 300 fantasy points. We aren’t so concerned about ADP and beating the market at the RB position because we need volume at the RB position to find a league winner, and likely high-volume earners typically have high draft costs already baked in. Last year, both Ekeler (2.01 on Sleeper) and Jonathan Taylor (1.08 on Sleeper) were high draft picks, and they still won you leagues. Even if you have to draft an RB at 1.01, but your pick at 1.01 scores 300 fantasy points, you can still win your league. In fact, last year, I found that no RB league winner came after pick 20, and after removing a couple of outliers, the average ADP of an RB league winner was picked 5th!
You may recall that I analyzed a ton of data last year. In fact, after analyzing eighteen possible statistical factors that explain why some instances resulted in a league-winning season, I discovered that:
- A league-winning running back is going to be a heavily targeted, pass-catching running back (80+ targets, 65+ catches) who still manages to touch the ball around 320+ times.
- A league-winning running back is going to be drafted in the top-8 picks, but likely within the top-5.
- A league-winning running back is usually younger than 26, and probably in his 2nd or 3rd year. Rookies have been league winners, but it’s a rare occurrence.
- A league-winning running back will be on the field about 67% of the time.
- A league-winning running back plays with a good QB, from a fantasy perspective, and plays for a team likely to win more games than they lose.
There is far more discussion in last year’s article that resulted in these summary bullet points. I encourage you to read it again because the discussion from last year’s article was really important to understand how to spot a league-winning running back. You may not like my picks at the end of this article, but you can still use my findings to find someone else who fits the bill (e.g. Najee Harris?).
That crazy, in-depth analysis from last year will not be necessary again here because 2021 simply confirmed my findings from last year’s article. Austin Ekeler perfectly fit all five of those bullet points: he had 94 targets leading to 70 receptions, he was 26 years old last season, he was on the field 65% of the snaps, and he played on a good offense with a very good quarterback: Justin Herbert. Jonathan Taylor was also generally proof of concept: he had 51 targets for 40 receptions, played 69% of the snaps, and scored a TON of touchdowns.
Now, Jonathan Taylor wasn’t quite the pass catcher we look for in our prototypical league winner, but that’s okay. We knew that not all league winners perfectly fit this mold I described from 10,000 feet. But, as the savvy fantasy player, you are by reading this article, you know that we are simply looking for the set of circumstances that give us the highest probability of finding a league-winning running back. There is 100% a world where we see another Jonathan Taylor year from a player who primarily sees rushing carries, such as Nick Chubb. But still, 51 targets is nothing to sneeze at, so we still need a capable pass-catching RB, even if they don’t see 80 targets like our model suggests.
The 2021 model was quite successful. In fact, Austin Ekeler was one of my picks in last year’s article and he put together a truly magical season. We don’t need to rethink our process from last year or even tweak our definitions. We simply need to apply what we learned from last year to again correctly pick one of the league-winning running backs.
Who is the 2022 League Winner?
Last year, I gave you Christian McCaffrey as a layup for the 2021 league winner. That “easy pick” didn’t turn out to be true, due to McCaffery’s lingering injury issues. But, we should note that McCaffrey was still the RB2 in points per game (after removing games where he was injured mid-game), and would have resulted in 373 fantasy points had his pace continued. Is McCaffery an injury risk? Maybe due to workload, but our injury expert, Matthew Betz, wrote that his injuries don’t follow a specific pattern, which means the annoying, year-killing injuries he sustained the last two years may have just been bad luck. My model for spotting a league winner is injury agnostic. We cannot weigh past injuries more heavily than a model proven to work, especially when injury specialists in the fantasy industry don’t consider McCaffery “injury-prone”. (see above).
Looking at the facts, McCaffrey is exactly that pass-catching back we want to find. He was on pace for 125 targets in his healthy games in 2021. Currently, the UDK has McCaffrey projected for 90 receptions, which feels like a ton, but is probably dead on, if he stays healthy. McCaffrey has no real competition for carries or playing time, and even if the Panthers lessen his load, he still probably plays 75-85% of the snaps. Now, he might be playing with the best quarterback of McCaffrey’s career (Cam Newton was not the same player after the shoulder injury in 2016, so McCaffrey has only played with beat-up Cam). Baker is not the strong, above-average quarterback we look for in our model, but McCaffrey’s elevated, projected target share and playing time more than compensates for Baker’s purported failings. McCaffrey is still only 26 this season, so he checks every box we want to see.
Saquon Barkley feels a lot like McCaffery above: when he’s healthy, he’s great, but he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy since his outstanding rookie year. That said, let’s at least consider the last time Barkley was fully healthy (2019). After a Grade-2 ankle sprain he suffered in Week 3, which took him out completely for three games, Barkley went on to finish with 18 ppg, including a 42-point explosion against Washington in Week 16. In 13 games, Barkley had 73 targets for 53 catches, so he was easily on pace for 80+ had he stayed healthy. Then, in 2020, he tore his ACL in only the second game of the season. Coming off the ACL rehab, he started a bit slow, suffered some more bad luck by twisting his ankle by stepping on another player’s foot, and now we are here.
Quietly, Barkley is the healthiest he has been since the beginning of 2019. Barkley is almost two full years removed from the ACL tear, and the ankle had an entire offseason to recover. Again, our model doesn’t take into account injury history or status, only age, and Barkley is still only 25 and entering his 5th year in the NFL.
Now, enter Brian Daboll, a coach largely credited for developing the high-powered offense in Buffalo. Daboll loved to air it out, but the truth is, he often involved his running backs in his passing attack. In fact, here is a stat you probably didn’t know: Devin Singletary averaged three targets a game over the past three seasons while playing only about 58% of the RB snaps. Barkley projects to avoid any backfield split, as the only other running back likely to get much playing time is Matt Breida. That means we can confidently project Barkley to keep at least 80-90% of the RB snaps while healthy, which likely means about 5 targets per game, if Singletary’s usage in a Brian Daboll offense is any indicator of how Daboll will implement Barkley (with a little extra boost because Barkley’s receiving talent far surpasses Devin Singletary). Five targets per game, equates to 85 targets per year, which is actually pretty conservative, given that Barkley had 121 targets in 2018 – a 16 game season.
Daniel Jones is not the type of quarterback we typically look for in our model, but there is a lot of optimism surrounding the Giants’ offense this year. Also, Jones is decently mobile – a circumstance that typically helps running backs. On the flip side of that coin, Jones isn’t so mobile that he will cost Barkley significant targets (Jones averages only about 60 rushes per year… compared Lamar Jackson‘s 150+).
Barkley is young enough, involved in the passing game enough, and healthy enough to be a league winner, especially at his ADP of 21st overall.
In the second episode of Hard Knocks: Detroit Lions, Duce Staley looked at D’Andre Swift and said “you have the ability to be the best in this league”. Those are powerful words coming from a running back who once was one of the best in the league. I may be a bit biased here, but I agree with Duce. Swift has delicious potential, especially as a pass catcher. In 2021, Swift earned 78 targets in only 13 games. He was easily on pace for 100, which is approximately where the Footballers have him projected.
The only knock on Swift is his usage. There is no doubt that the Lions absolutely love Jamaal Williams, especially for his leadership and effort. But still, in 2021, Swift played 67% of the snaps, which is exactly our model. If Swift catches fire, do you really think Dan Campbell and assistant coach Duce Staley aren’t going to give him 75%? Yes, Williams will play and take carries, but he is not a threat to Swift’s receiving projections and profile.
Again, we don’t have a world-beating QB associated with our projected league winner, but Jared Goff is a far better quarterback than the fantasy community believes.
At age 23 and in only his third year, Swift is the prototypical, young RB ready to break out. If Swift can unlock what Duce Staley sees in him and hold it together for 17 games, 300 fantasy points are easily in the cards.