It’s Complicated: What to Do with 2022 Ambiguous Backfields (Fantasy Football)
Fantasy backfields can be frustrating, complicated, and downright maddening. The same can be said about how fantasy owners approach them. Some owners steer clear nervous about drafting the “wrong” player, and instead target teams with clear RB1s, but often at a high draft cost, causing them to have fewer options at other positions in the draft.
A few years ago, good friend of the show JJ Zachariason did a deeper dive on the terminology of “ambiguous backfields”. By pouring through a plethora of data, he discovered that when you are looking for ambiguous backfields to target, you should be attacking middle-round team RB1s who have teammates who are also being drafted in the middle rounds. The term ambiguous backfields are now heard on a daily basis from fantasy football analysts for many reasons.
Firstly, the NFL has leaned into the hot hand approach, slowly stepping away from the traditional three-down back, whether because of the chance of injury or the desire to spread the ball around. In addition, as fantasy owners looking for good values, we want to find the best “deal” on draft day. This steers us away from taking what is declared as the RB1 on a team at what might be a high draft capital to wait for the sale of the player waiting in the wings that could swipe the starting role at a value.
Others managers up multiple backs on the same team, covering their bases knowing that one of them will hit at some point. Both of these approaches have clear pros and cons. Steering clear of ambiguous backfields entirely can mean you miss out on potential league winners, and drafting multiple backs from one team can clog up your bench and leave you wondering if and when you should drop someone. Taking a shot on an RB in an ambiguous backfield becomes a cost/benefit analysis to a point, with a touch of a gut check. At a point in the draft, you must listen to that voice in your head, and if you believe in a player, you have to shoot your shot on your guy.
Let’s look at some of the most complicated backfields in fantasy in 2022 and what we should do with them.
Miami has been stockpiling RBs this offseason like it’s going out of style. The Dolphins still had The Gasman and Salvon Ahmed on the roster from last season; they added Chase Edmonds, Sony Michel, and Raheem Mostert in the off-season. When the Dolphins signed Edmonds to a two-year deal worth 12.6 million early in the off-season, we speculated that Edmonds would be the presumed RB1. When Mostert and then Michel were added, it became murky. So if you are targeting the Dolphins’ offense this season, what direction should you lean? Edmonds is being drafted the highest in Miami, going in the middle of the eighth round primarily due to his pass-catching prowess. Edmonds was the RB21 through the first six weeks of 2021 until he went down due to an ankle injury in Arizona. Even with that injury, Edmonds managed to garner 51 targets through the air and almost 600 yards on the ground.
There are five teams with two RBs on their rosters being drafted earlier than Edmonds, the first off the board for Miami, which is a clear indication of how confused drafters feel about the Dolphins RB room. The Dolphins had the fourth lowest rushing grade from PFF last season, and even with the addition of Mike McDaniel and the assumption of a San Francisco-esque type running attack, fantasy owners are still perplexed. Even though Miami threw money at their RB issue primarily with Edmonds, and he definitely has the most potential as a pass catcher – he averaged 230 yards a season during his time in Arizona – it might be too rich for your blood at that ADP. An incredible speedster and a veteran in a McDaniel system, on the surface, Raheem Mostert seems to be in the best situation. However, now thirty years old and only having played one full season throughout his entire career, Mostert might be an even riskier pick than Edmonds at his ADP. It is an intriguing take, but if you must have a piece of this Dolphins backfield, may I present the case for Sony Michel? Going in the late 12th round at current, Michel is being drafted in the vicinity of kickers (ew), defenses, and rookies to take a shot on. Michel has proved durable with only one season out of four with less than 925 rushing yards. And on teams with ambiguous backfields to boot. Last season Sony Michel was drafted as RB45 and finished as RB30. That plus the fact that Mostert is prone to injury, which could quickly push him up in the pecking order; if you must have a Fin, I say go Michel this season. The best thing about taking a shot on someone so late in the draft is that if the offense does not use him how we hope they do, you can cut him after a couple of weeks and move on.
The data below is from fantasyfootballcalculator.com, based on a 12-team half-point PPR draft.
We stay in the AFC East with the New England Patriots. James White surprisingly still plays for the Pats, and in addition to White, the Pats still have Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson on the roster. They also drafted Rookie Pierre Strong. Recently it was reported that James White is still walking with an uncomfortable gate, and on July 21st, White was placed on the PUP list. This does not necessarily mean he will be unavailable to start the season – any player placed on the PUP list can come off the list at any time, and there is no time limit to how long he must be on the list. However, this opens the door for rookie Pierre Strong, whose current ADP is at the end of the 17th round according to Underdog, to make an impact. So, who to quietly target if the value appears? With White’s current injury update, he seems like too much of a gamble, especially in a complicated backfield. With so many RBs fighting for a starting slot, any points against a player should push them significantly down your draft board.
Harris had a solid season in 2021, rushing for over 900 yards and scoring 15 TDs, which ties him for the second most among RBs that season. Fantasy owners are drafting Harris with those 15 TDs fresh in their minds, and he is probably due to some regression with those numbers. Whereas injury propensity can be a tie-breaker, so is the ability to catch the football, and Harris is not great at catching the football – he only had 20 targets in 2021. That, plus the potential TD regression, makes me not want to invest in Harris in the fifth round. Rhamondre Stevenson and Pierre Strong seem to be the best options in this ambiguous backfield. With over 600 yards rushing last season and five TDs, Stevenson may be on his way to earning the trust of Bill Belichick.
The team famous for collecting RBs continues to do so this season. Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon, and Jeff Wilson Jr. are on the roster. JaMycal Hasty is still around, plus Kyle Juszczyk and the Niners also drafted Tyrion Davis-Price. Although it seemed that the Niners had a strong rush attack in 2021, they were 17th in PFF’s grade for rushing, so they have room for improvement. Their excellent grade for pass blocking might help them get there this season. There is another name that even more adds to the ambiguous backfield in San Francisco, and that man is Deebo Samuel. The team had over 2100 yards rushing in the 2021 season, and 365 of them belong to WR Deebo. Coming out in the off-season stating that he wants to be used less as an RB might open the door for another back to take the lead.
Owners are leaning towards Eli Mitchell to be the go-to guy, and his ADP reflects that, as he is being drafted in the late third round as the RB 19. Sure, Mitchell could take the reins, but Shanahan always has a way of surprising us. In two of his last four weeks, Mitchell rushed for over 100 yards but then seemed to taper off come playoff time. If you are drafting Mitchell that early, you need him to hit and hit often. In a system that has a permanent doghouse built on the outskirts of Levi Stadium, that is a tough pill to swallow. Sermon’s health was an issue in 2021 and may continue to be this season – he only played five games for the Niners last year, so that gives me caution even at his eleventh-round ADP. TDP, the rookie out of LSU, might be the best option if you want a piece of the San Francisco rushing pie; just keep in mind the pie should be smaller this season with Trey Lance as QB. Your best bet to snag a piece of that San Francisco rushing pie might be to draft Lance, who is currently going in the middle of the ninth round.
Pete Carroll, also known for collecting RBs, added to his collection this off-season by drafting Ken Walker. Walker joins Rashad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, and Travis Homer. Of all the backfields I looked at, Seattle had players closest in ADPs – currently, Penny and Walker are going about a round and a half apart – owners are confused who to value more in the Seattle backfield, and for a good reason. Do you go with the injury-prone returning Penny or take a shot on the unproven rookie? The recent retirement of Chris Carson due to his injury may clear the waters slightly, but keep an eye out for Carroll adding someone else to his rotation just to perplex us further. Looking at the backs currently on the payroll, Rashad Penny has the most to prove. He ended the 2021 season rushing for almost 500 yards and four TDs in the last three games, and he ended the season as RB36, but he was RB1 over the last six games of the year. Talk about recency bias heading into draft season; however, this time, I am going to buy in. We often talk about tempering your expectations if a player has an incredible end of season heading into the following year. However, I think we are looking at a player in Penny who can back it up and still, with an ADP at the end of the sixth round, could be a value.
The Seattle ambiguous backfield is one I am willing to go in on for a few reasons. First of all, there are fewer players muddying the waters here, at least for the moment. Also, I mentioned Penny showing off his talent at the end of 2021, and the strong runner Rookie Ken Walker going in the eighth round is being drafted late enough that he can be your flex, so worth taking a chance. Finally, Seattle is going to run. The loss of Carson has cleared things up slightly enough to jump in here as we know Seattle will run, whether because they want to or because they have to. Ahem, Drew Lock.
There seem to be more teams than usual this season with ambiguous backfields, so I added an honorable mention category.
The Texans have become the island of misfit toys for RBs in 2022. Marlon Mack, Rex Burkhead, and Dare Ogunbowale will be battling for touches with Rookie Dameon Pierce. It is taking a lot for me to invest in a Houston running attack with the lowest PFF rating for rushing attack in the 2021 season. With injury recovery issues to boot, unless rookie Pierce drops significantly past his current ADP in the late eleventh round, count me out. I am nervous to see what Mack can do post-injury and I am not interested in Burkhead or Ogunbowale.
Talent is not as much an issue in Baltimore as it could be in Houston, but they do have the injury bug to deal with. With JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards starting training camp on the PUP, mix in Rookie Tyler Badie, elder statesman Mike Davis, and a rushing QB in Lamar Jackson, fantasy owners might be throwing their hands in the air. Monitor the injury news of Dobbins and Edwards, as that will be the domino effect to change the depth chart potentially and, with it, the players you might target this season.