We are in our first full week of NFL preseason action and with the excitement building, we’ve been looking at players who are set to breakout this season. Last week, we identified five wide receivers who will take the next step to stardom, so today we’ll turn our attention to running backs.
Since we’re identifying players who will take another step and emerge as key players in the public consciousness, we’re looking only at players who have already played NFL games or been in the league for over a year. That means that, despite Breece Hall being primed for a big year with the Jets, he won’t be featured here.
Below, I’m going to look at five running backs who may be on the periphery of the national conversation (yes, you may already know all about them if you play fantasy football) that I think could emerge as well-known studs by the end of the season.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Javonte Williams is well known to fantasy football players. He came into his rookie season in Denver with a lot of hype after rushing for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns in his junior year at North Carolina. However, that was his first truly elite year in college and many were unaware of the talent he possessed.
Then he got drafted by Denver and entered a timeshare with Melvin Gordon. The two running backs split carries dead even last year, both of them finishing with 203 on the season, so it might seem crazy that I’m saying Williams is going to break out when Denver re-signed Gordon in the offseason.
However, Williams was the more explosive back last year, gaining a ridiculous 74.2% of yards after contact and breaking 21.7% of tackles. He also had an elite catch rate and had an 80% positive run rate that suggests he could be a better red zone back than Gordon if the Broncos entrusted him with the role.
Recent reports out of the Broncos’ camp are that Gordon is more of a clear back-up this year than last year, and Williams will be more of the focal point of the backfield. With Russell Wilson now in town, more involvement for Williams could lead to a truly impressive season.
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Heading into last season, you would be forgiven if you had forgotten about Rashaad Penny. After being selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, Penny started slowly behind Chris Carson and then battled injuries the next two seasons, totaling only 161 carries in his first three NFL seasons. Last year, after Carson was hurt, Penny emerged from a committee that featured Alex Collins, Deejay Dallas, and Adrian Peterson.
The 26-year-old Penny played in ten games last year, starting six, and rushed for 749 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries (6.3 yards per carry). He only added 48 yards through the air, but showed Chris Carson-like toughness, breaking 20.2% of tackles and rushing for an average of 3.7 yards after contact.
However, despite Penny’s success, the team drafted Walker III out of Michigan State in the second round this year. The rookie finished 6th in Heisman voting in 2021, rushing for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns on 263 carries in his first year as a Spartan after transferring from Wake Forest.
Walker III had rushed for exactly 579 yards in each of his two years at Wake Forest, so there is some concern about his lack of track record. Given Penny’s collegiate tape plus the NFL-level skills he has shown whenever he’s healthy, Penny is a good bet to lead the Seahawks in carries and perhaps be more of a focal point in the offense now that the team is trying to establish a new identity with Russell Wilson no longer under center.
Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Travis Etienne was a star at Clemson, posting at least 1,600 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground during his Sophomore and Junior years. In his Senior year, COVID led to just a 12-game season, where Etienne rushed for 914 yards on the ground but showed elite skill in an expanded role as a pass-catcher, hauling in 48 receptions for 588 yards.
It had everybody believing that Etienne would be a true three-down back before suffering an injury in his first NFL training camp.
We covered Etienne in the running back training camp stories to watch, where I wrote: “The Jaguars’ first-round pick last year, Etienne suffered a Linsfranc injury during the preseason and missed the entire year. He has already gotten back on the field and is apparently impressing his new coaching staff, led by former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson.
It had been expected that Etienne would be the clear lead running back in Jacksonville after James Robinson suffered a torn Achilles in Week 16. However, Robinson is also already back on the field and will not be put on the PUP list to open training camp.
Obviously, this is a good sign for his availability, but we’ll have to see just how involved Robinson is in practices and how he looks when the pads go on. Since this is not the same coaching staff that drafted Etienne in the first round, it’s anybody’s guess how they will choose to deploy the two running backs and if one is more suited to the new scheme than another. As a result, this is one of the key training camp battles to watch in the NFL.”
AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
AJ Dillon is another player who many fantasy managers know, and realistically, many NFL fans since Green Bay is such a prominent team on the national stage. However, Dillon makes this list because I think he is set to make a jump in 2022.
In six of the last eight games last season, Dillon saw more carries and played more snaps than Aaron Jones. Jones was battling an injury for some of that, but I believe it’s a clear indication of the team’s increasing faith in Dillon and increasing hesitation to make Jones a featured back.
Dillon also expanded his game last year, catching 34 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 92% catch rate and gained 66.3% of his total yards after contact, which shows both his skill in the passing game and his ability to fill the bruising role he was drafted to fill. With Green Bay potentially shifting to a more run-focused approach without Davante Adams (or an approach that uses the backs more in the passing game), Dillon could emerge as the top offensive option for Aaron Rodgers in 2022.
Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
Speaking of teams not wanting to give a player a feature role, I think the idea of Miles Sanders as the workhorse back in Philadelphia is over. The Eagles took 76 snaps inside the 10-yard line during the 13 games that Sanders played last season (including playoffs), and he was on the field for 37 of those plays, while Gainwell saw 21 snaps.
The fact that the disparity was so small when Gainwell was thought of as just a “pass-catching back” coming out of college, and Sanders was supposed to be their most trusted back is telling. When the Eagles needed tough runs from deep inside an opponent’s territory, they went to Gainwell more often than many would have expected. Gainwell also converted for a touchdown on 41% of his total red zone rushes.
When you pair that with the fact that Gainwell was one of the better receiving back prospects to come out of college in a while, you begin to see the upside of a true playmaker in the backfield. Now, Miles Sanders will still get carries. So will Boston Scott. But Gainwell could easily emerge as the most talented and eye-catching of the three, which could thrust him into the national spotlight.
Honorable Mention: Chase Edmonds (Dolphins), Rhamondre Stevenson (Patriots), Tony Pollard (Cowboys), Ronald Jones Jr. (Chiefs)