In this week-long series, NFL Network analysts examine the notable Year 2 players at different position groups who are poised for a breakout campaign in 2022. Today, Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson spotlights three running backs.
The 2021 running back class had a solid showing last season. It's no surprise that the highest-drafted back, Najee Harris, had the best performance of the group.
Picked 24th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris ranked in the top five among running backs in multiple categories last season: 381 touches (first), 1,200 rush yards (fourth), 1,667 scrimmage yards (second), 74 receptions (first) and 467 receiving yards (third). He was an absolute workhorse. In fact, he was the first rookie since yours truly to lead the NFL in touches. Asked by my colleague Rich Eisen on the Rich Eisen Show last month if he could go for 400 touches, Harris said he'd be willing to get 500(!) if it helps the Steelers win.
Clearly, Harris already has broken out, but who could make the jump this fall? Here are three Year 2 running backs who are poised for a breakout season in 2022.
Year 1: Etienne missed the 2021 season with a Lisfranc injury.
After missing all of his rookie year, Etienne will add some big-play ability to an offense that desperately needs it after finishing last in scoring a year ago. Already generating buzz in camp, he's a threat running between the tackles and on the perimeter, running routes out of the backfield and lining up in the slot. Under new head coach Doug Pederson, Etienne will thrive from the shotgun formation just as he did at Clemson. He operates well in space with quick feet and great burst to go along with the rhythm, reaction and understanding of how to effectively run in shotgun sets. Etienne's ability will give him ample opportunities even with two-year starter James Robinson making his way back from an Achilles injury. Fans will have to wait at least one more week to see Etienne in exhibition game action, though, as he will not play in Thursday's Hall of Fame Game versus the Raiders.
Year 1: 12 games | 133 att | 606 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 14 rec | 123 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
New England's Damien Harris racked up 929 rush yards and 15 rush touchdowns last season, so he'll likely be the RB1 to open the season. But Stevenson is a big play waiting to happen. Harris has a history of injuries, missing eight games over the last two seasons. If given the opportunity, Stevenson (6-foot, 230 pounds) has the ability to overtake the fourth-year back and keep the job. Stevenson is a tough, powerful runner with great vision and he's exactly what the Patriots' offense needs as the team continues to develop quarterback Mac Jones.
Year 1: 17 games | 203 att | 903 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 43 rec | 316 rec yds | 3 rec TDs
Williams and backfield mate Melvin Gordon each had exactly 203 carries last season and were the only teammate duo to each have at least 900 rush yards. While Denver re-signed Gordon to a one-year deal this offseason, I believe Williams will be the primary rusher in 2022. The second-year back is able to break tackles with his low center of gravity, footwork and powerful leg drive. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams recorded 63 forced missed tackles on his 203 attempts -- behind only Jonathan Taylor's 66 on 332 carries -- and amassed 694 rush yards after contact (eighth-most in the league). That's an average of 3.4 yards after contact per carry. When you consider those numbers, it's a bit baffling that he didn't see a heavier workload. Expect Williams to get at least 60 more opportunities to run the ball than he did last season.
And I still expect Williams to be involved in the pass game, much like how Marshawn Lynch was used with now-Broncos QB Russell Wilson in Seattle. Lynch could be a weapon in the pass game, with Wilson checking down to the bruiser or using him on bubble screens. Williams and Gordon should see plenty of those opportunities, even with a talented group of wide receivers in Denver.
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