Identifying the next Overall RB#1

The one commodity everyone is after in fantasy football is the overall RB#1. If you have him, and the rest of the team is at least moderately balanced, you are almost guaranteed a playoff spot in your fantasy league.

But how do we find the next RB#1? Most managers simply draft last year’s RB#1. But that almost never works. In recent years, only one RB managed to finish first on his position two years in a row: Todd Gurley in 2017 & 2018.

2011: Ray Rice (2012: RB#5)
2012: Adrian Peterson (2013: RB#9)
2013: Jamaal Charles (2014: RB#7)
2014: Le’Veon Bell (2015: RB#48)
2015: Devonta Freeman (2016: RB#6)
2016: David Johnson (2017: RB#118)
2017: Todd Gurley (2018: RB#1)
2018: Todd Gurley (2019: RB#14)
2019: CMC (2020: RB#53)
2020: Alvin Kamara (2021: RB#8)
2021: Jonathan Taylor (2022: RB#??)

So empirical evidence suggests that Jonathan Taylor will not be the RB#1 in 2022. But who will it be? Let’s take a look at how recent RB#1s finished in the year before.

#Sn shows the player experience in the NFL in his RB#1 year. 1 = rookie, 2 = sophomore, etc.
Prev shows the RB rank of the player in the previous season.
Numbers are based on half-PPR.

Year RB1 #Sn Prev
2021 Jonathan Taylor 2 6
2020 Alvin Kamara 4 12
2019 Christian McCaffrey 3 3
2018 Todd Gurley 4 1
2017 Todd Gurley 3 17
2016 David Johnson 2 9
2015 Devonta Freeman 2 52
2014 Le’Veon Bell 2 14
2013 Jamaal Charles 6 9
2012 Adrian Peterson 6 11

This is not a huge sample size for statistical purposes, but it still shows a pretty strong trend: the prototypical RB#1 is in his second or third year and had a good season in the year before already, usually in the mid to low-end RB1 range.

So who is this year’s overall RB#1 then, from a strictly empirical point of view? Let’s look at the highest ranked RBs in ECR:

Jonathan Taylor (3rd year / 1st last year)
Unlikely, as RBs very rarely repeat an RB#1 year.

Christian McCaffrey (6 / 39)
Unlikely, as he’s in the league for too long and comes off a lost season. Also, he’s been RB#1 before.

Austin Ekeler (6 / 2)
Unlikely, as he’s in the league for too long.

Dalvin Cook (6 / 15)
Unlikely, as he’s in the league for too long.

Derrick Henry (7 / 16)
Unlikely, as he’s in the league for too long.

Najee Harris (2 / 4)
Ding, ding, ding - we have a winner! :bell:
Harris checks all the empirical boxes. Second year player, successful season in the previous year, but not in the top 3 range.

Joe Mixon (6 / 3)
Unlikely, as he’s in the league for too long.

D’Andre Swift (3 / 19)
Swift comes close, from a strictly empirical point of view. He missed 4 games in 2021, otherwise he’d have finished in the top 10 range. And he’s a third year player.

Let’s also look at one player further down the list:

Javonte Williams (2 / 17)
Strictly empirically speaking, Williams is a strong candidate, too. His #17 finish in 2021 was owed to the time share he had with Melvin Gordon. As we know, Gordon is back in 2022, so he would have to miss most of the season for Javonte to enter the RB#1 conversation. He could be a strong candidate in 2023, though.


My favorite for the RB crown in 2022 is Najee Harris. Not only because he meets the empirical criteria (I would not make draft recommendations only on that basis), but he also came out as the RB#1 in my player projections, which are not based on empirical data.

Jonathan Taylor will still have a strong season, and could easily enter the RB#1 conversation as long as he stays healthy. The same goes for the other top candidates. There is no law preventing 6th year players from taking the crown. But it is worth keeping in mind that the last 6th year player who did that was Jamaal Charles in 2013. And since then, the game certainly did not become easier and less punishing from a physical point of view.

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That is one aspect that we didn’t see a decade ago. I just don’t see RB’s lasting as long as they once did. I expect the idea of a bellcow is slowly fading from the game.

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If you assess the chances of any individual RB finishing the season #1, they will be “unlikely.”

The RB with the greatest chance of finishing the season #1 will still only have about a 10% chance of doing so, if that.

I like the guy who finished as a top 15 RB last season, despite only playing 8 games. Maybe even more stunning is the fact that despite being hurt in Week 8, Derrick Henry was still the #4 standard-scoring RB after Week 13.

Henry had an impressive run, especially in 2019 and 2020. But not even an ironman can withstand that volume forever. Could be he has another strong season in him. Could be he’ll break down again. We can debate that all night long, at the end of the day, only time will tell.

I have him projected within 3 points of JT and CMC, and only a few points behind Najee. All well within the margin of error. If his body can withstand last year’s volume over full 17 games, then he stands every chance to claim the crown.

He would be the most unusual RB#1 in well over a decade, though. Personally, I find it more likely that JT becomes the second RB in a decade to finish RB#1 twice in a row. Looking at his profile, he’s in a prime position to pull it off.

But my money is on Najee in 2022, and if nothing unforeseen happens, Javonte in 2023.

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You do know that Henry never finished higher than #3, and he had to rush for over 2000 yards to do it? That’s because he has almost no passing game stats. Even with his blistering pace last year, he was on pace for 38 catches and 327 receiving yards, which would have been his career high in receiving.

Even if you are expecting Henry to repeat what he did last year, and just keep going, don’t. the pace he was on, about 27 carries/game, would have him obliterating the NFL record for rushing attempts in a season, with 465. the current record is held by Larry Johnson, set in 2006, with 416 (he also had 41 catches). Johnson was never the same RB after that, only playing 8 games the following year, and then his best season the second year of 12 games. By the way, Johnson was almost as big as Henry, and he was also 27 when he set the record. Henry is a year older now.

If you’re saying it’s unlikely for Henry to be the #1 overall RB, then I agree.

If you’re saying he’s not the MOST likely to be the #1 overall RB, then you’re wrong.

Actually, I’d go a step further and say he’s one of the least likely candidates from the above list. He simply is too old and has seen way too much usage already to be a candidate for setting a new NFL rushing record. Which indeed he’d need to set for becoming the #1 in half-PPR.

Looking at weeks 1-7, Henry was on pace for 2,100 yards. In 2020, he had over 2,000 already. A 22 year old 2nd year player might be able to withstand that abuse, and even he will need luck. But there is no evidence suggesting that a 28 year old player in his 7th year can try to go for 2200+ yards without breaking down. The Titans will either have to dial back his workload, or they will lose him once again.

Most RBs were never the same again after a #1 season. Gurley was the exception with his double take, but even he broke down entirely the year after, and never returned.

Taylor still has a rather good chance to repeat Gurley’s feat, or at least finish in the top 5 once more. But if he sees the same workload as last year, I’d bet money he breaks down in 2023.

My RB#1 candidates, in decreasing likelihood:

Najee Harris
Javonte Williams (with Melvin Gordon getting injured early)
D’Andre Swift
Jonathan Taylor
Joe Mixon
Derrick Henry
Dalvin Cook
Austin Ekeler
Javonte Williams (with Gordon active all season)

That does not mean I project the RBs to finish the season in this order. It’s just the likelihood of them finishing as RB#1, taking injury risk into account.

I think your mistake may be in assessing Henry as if he were a human being.

Derrick Henry Stiff Arm GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

I wasn’t talking about JUST an RB #1 season, but one with a LOT of carries.

And I think your mistake might be in watching one play and assuming that is EVERY play!

Don’t get me wrong: Tossing DB’s aside like they are rag dolls is glorious. But eventually he will run into similar sized LB’s, or even bigger defensive linemen. That’s where the pain starts.

Eventually? What has he been doing for the past six years?

Again, you’re thinking of Henry as the prey. It would be more accurate to think of Henry as the predator.

Henry is a predator. But even predators age, and so do their bones, joints and ligaments.

Can we agree on this?

If Henry gets another injury-free season, he’s in the #1 conversation, at least in standard scoring. If he gets injured again and misses more than 1-2 games, then not.

No, I think that would still be assessing him more as a human being.

He would have to miss more than 1-2 games to keep him from being a RB1; Henry was the RB12 in standard scoring after Week 17 last season (despite being injured in his 8th game). He was still THE #1 RB for a couple of weeks after his injury, and would have still been the RB1 through Week 11 if Taylor hadn’t been tearing things up.

Normal expectations do not apply.