Three-Down Running Backs: The Fantasy Football Unicorn

by Ryan Kirksey
2022 Fantasy Football Best Ball Underdog Rankings

In an era where there are seemingly more stud WR1s than there are teams in most Fantasy Football leagues, the idea of a three-down running back has moved in the complete opposite direction. More and more, NFL teams are deploying running back-by-committee strategies. They have a running back for each possible situation: first and second downs, short yardage, passing downs, goal-line plays, and pass protection. The concept of a three-down running back has truly become a Fantasy Football unicorn.

As we come up on the last Fantasy Football draft weekend before the season begins, who can we count on to roster who will get the most in-game opportunities? And how can we be assured our workhorse running backs will keep those roles?

This piece will dig into the potential three-down running backs that are the most useful for 2022 Fantasy Football teams.

Three-Down Running Backs: The Fantasy Football Unicorn

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Third Down Opportunities are Essential

You will find plenty of running backs who either 1) play on primarily first or second downs (think Nick Chubb or Derrick Henry), 2) play primarily on third downs (such as Rex Burkhead or the old James White role), or 3) have ambiguous roles going into 2022 (like Cam Akers or J.K. Dobbins).

To be a true three-down running back, these players must actually, you know....PLAY ON THIRD DOWN. Using the play by play database at footballdb.com, we can get a glimpse of who had the most action on third downs among all running backs. Here is a list of all running backs who had at least 15 third down opportunities (rush attempts + targets) in 2021.

2021 RankPlayerRushTargets3rd Down Total
1Najee Harris222648
2Ezekiel Elliott271542
2D'Andre Swift212142
4Jonathan Taylor311041
5Brandon Bolden192140
6Javonte Williams231538
7James Conner32537
8Alvin Kamara191736
9Rex Burkhead211334
10Antonio Gibson28432
10Myles Gaskin141832
12David Montgomery171330
13Dalvin Cook19928
13Austin Ekeler91928
15Kenny Gainwell131427
15Aaron Jones81927
17Devontae Booker141226
17Melvin Gordon101626
17Cordarrelle Patterson91726
20Leonard Fournette16925
20Chase Edmonds111425
20Samaje Perine111425
23Sony Michel21324
23D'Ernest Johnson141024
23David Johnson91524
26Chuba Hubbard14923
27Darrel Williams121022
28Jamaal Williams17421
29Kareem Hunt11920
29Travis Homer81220
31AJ Dillon17219
31Darrell Henderson15419
33Saquon Barkley15318
33James Robinson10818
35Josh Jacobs12517
35Miles Sanders10717
35Tony Pollard8917
35Christian McCaffrey61117
39Alexander Mattison10616

What stands out here? Quite a lot actually. We can easily identify running backs into buckets now based on this data and what we know about their first and second-down roles.

The True Workhorses

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By my calculation, this list gives us 11 no-doubt-about-it, three-down workhorse running backs. As we will in the categories below, there are many types of backs represented here, and we may cast the workhorse net wider than 11 by the end of this section. But the truth is there is about one workhorse back per team in most standard leagues.

Here are the 11 true three-down backs from 2021:

Najee Harris
Ezekiel Elliott
D'Andre Swift
Jonathan Taylor
James Conner
Alvin Kamara
David Montgomery
Dalvin Cook
Austin Ekeler
Aaron Jones
Leonard Fournette

There are some interesting nuggets we can glean from this group. First, although the fantasy community may not agree, the Cowboys still see Ezekiel Elliott as a three-down back. James Conner and Jonathan Taylor are both here not because of their targets, but because of their volume of rush attempts. Their respective teams are among the few who run the ball the most on third down. And Aaron Jones (plus AJ Dillon who also made the list) are so unique as a thunder and lightning combo that they get their numbers even when it seems like the other is constantly eating into their work.

The rest of the list is made up of the rare breed who rush AND catch passes on third down: Najee Harris, Austin Ekeler, D'Andre Swift, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and David Montgomery. Those are your workhorses.

Those six should have been joined by another two backs last year, but injuries slowed them down or took them out completely. We look at them next.

The Fun With Numbers Group

The past couple of seasons, injuries robbed us of the joys of watching two of the NFL's elite three-down running backs: Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. But if we take the production from their two backups, we can start to see the incredible opportunity each would have over the course of a healthy season.

McCaffrey checked in with 17 total opportunities in 2021 despite playing only seven games. His backup, Chuba Hubbard, started 10 games and finished with 23 opportunities. Combine those numbers and that places McCaffrey right in the top five among the top workhorse backs in the league.

The same is true with Barkley, who could only manage 18 third down opportunities in just over 12 games last season. His backup, Devontae Booker backed him up with another 26 in his time on the field. Those 44 chances would, again, put Barkley near the top of all running backs.

Please stay healthy in 2022 guys.

The Missing Running Backs

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One of the most glaring things from this list is, in fact, the running backs who are not here. You will see running backs like Derrick Henry, Damien Harris, and Nick Chubb are nowhere to be found. That's because none of them reached the 15-opportunity threshold from last season. Henry (12 rushes, 0 targets) barely touches the ball on third downs, instead turning over those duties to Dontrell Hilliard and others. Chubb (12 rushes, 1 target) concedes touches to Kareem Hunt who does find his way on the list.

And then there is Damien Harris, he of the 15 touchdowns last season. He accumulated only 13 rush attempts and no targets last season on third down, instead leaving that role for Rhamondre Stevenson and a surprise player at the top of the list: Brandon Bolden.

Each of these three running backs have their own stand-alone value playing most first and second downs. The Titans and Browns especially look to feature a heavy-rush offense this year. But if you're looking for three-down consistency, these are not the guys.

Third Down Specialists

So what about Brandon Bolden? He finds his way in the top five of this list on the back of 19 rush attempts and 21 targets on third downs. But he falls into the group of third down specialists because of how much of his work comes only in those situations. Consider that he only had 44 total rushes last season (19 on third downs) and 49 total targets (21 on third down). His role on first and second downs is incredibly inconsistent if his counterparts are healthy.

Now, he finds himself in Las Vegas with his old offensive coach Josh McDaniels and Kenyan Drake recently released. He certainly isn't a top-of-the-draft target by any means, but in PPR leagues, Bolden is worth a flyer for sure.

Other running backs that fall into this category would be Rex Burkhead (another McDaniels product), Samaje Perine, Travis Homer, Kareem Hunt (although he has more stand-alone value than these others), and Darrel Williams.

Messy Timeshares

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Who knows what is going to happen with the Miami Dolphins' backfield this season. The ADP for Chase Edmonds has been creeping up lately. But even after the release of Sony Michel on Monday, the Dolphins roster two players on this list (Edmonds and Myles Gaskin) and also have a healthy Raheem Mostert on the roster. If Mostert has another lost season due to injury, then we might have some clear roles here, but unless the ADPs for Edmonds and Gaskin get into attractive territory, I'm staying away.

And then there is Denver. Reports have come out this season (even from Melvin Gordon himself) that the Broncos want to do everything they can to give Javonte Williams the very heavy side of the team's running back time share. I, for one, am a believer in this happening, and these third down numbers make Williams all the more attractive. Even if he gets just a slice of the rush attempts and targets Gordon received, this could be a top-five season for Williams. The Broncos led the NFL in running back opportunities on third down last year.

Elite Handcuffs

This next group are not starters nominally, but play a heavy role on their team, and would become instant top-12 running backs should the back in front of them suffer an injury. The players in this group should all be drafted in most leagues with any kind of point per reception component. They are just one twisted ankle away from having a three-down role and becoming instant week-winners.

Those backs are Kenny Gainwell, D'Ernest Johnson, Jamaal Williams, Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson, and Alexander Mattison.

The "You Had Your Shot" Running Backs

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This is an odd group of backs who, for one reason or another, are unlikely to repeat their opportunity or success from 2021 because of a variety of reasons. First, Cordarelle Patterson is one of fantasy's great stories from last season. He was a revelation both rushing and receiving the ball, but things have now drastically changed. The Falcons have a rushing quarterback in Marcus Mariota and are also going to give rookie Tyler Allgeier every shot to be the Atlanta back of the future.

Next is James Robinson. The combination of a lengthy recovery from an Achilles injury plus Travis Etienne returning from missing 2021 will put a damper on whatever success he had last year. The last would be former fantasy MVP David Johnson. Father Time gets the best of everyone eventually, DJ. And it looks like your time has come.

Three-Down Running Backs are a Dying Breed

The biggest takeaway from the list is that just because a back has third-down work, it doesn't make them a workhorse. Except for David Montgomery, each of those stud rushers will go in about the first two rounds. You are going to pay a top-round draft pick for their services, but in return they rarely come off the field.

It's a hefty price, but one worth paying.


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