Will Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott bounce back? What went wrong, 2022 stat projections for each star

Last season was difficult for the NFL's highest-paid running backs. Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb remained extremely effective when healthy, Austin Ekeler took over as a two-way force and Jonathan Taylor emerged as the league's best young back, but the players who expected to be elite weren't at that level.

Let's break down what happened in 2021 with four of the most prominent backs -- Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott -- to get a sense of what they might do this season. Injuries played a role and could do so again, but in several cases, I found the stories most often being told about these four masked more significant issues. In other cases, I found the popular perception to be totally true.

I'll run through all four using advanced metrics from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats and then project what an average season might look like for them in 2022. I'll begin with Carolina, where the consensus No. 1 fantasy football pick in 2020 and 2021 has spent most of the past two years on the sideline:

Jump to a section:
Ezekiel Elliott | Derrick Henry
Alvin Kamara | Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

2021 stats: 99 carries for 442 yards and 1 TD; 37 catches (41 targets) for 343 yards and 1 TD

Let's start with the league's most expensive back. When McCaffrey signed his four-year, $64 million extension in 2020, he was the exception to arguments about signing running backs to extensions.

For one, his prodigious receiving numbers gave him a wider range of values than the typical back. More importantly, perhaps, his medical record was pristine: He hadn't missed an NFL game while lining up for more than 90% of the Panthers' offensive snaps in back-to-back seasons.

Since then, McCaffrey has played only about 21% of Carolina's offensive snaps, missing 17 of 27 possible games with ankle, shoulder and hamstring injuries. The same player who ran for 100 or more yards six times across the first nine games of the 2019 season hasn't hit that mark in a single game since. Teams reportedly called the Panthers to trade for McCaffrey this offseason, but with Carolina looking for a first-round pick and a young player, no deal was reached.