What changed in the RB landscape after the 2023 NFL Draft?
We had a weird thing happen this year where the NFL, a league that appeared to have learned its lessons about drafting running backs early, instead somehow wound up with not one but two top-12 picks invested in running backs. Part of that is because the NFL is at the mercy of the strength of its draft classes and that this was not a particularly deep draft class. If Bijan Robinson was drafted 18th overall instead of eighth -- something that could have happened had there been more consensus top-10 talents -- this probably isn’t much of a story at all.
But another part of it is that we saw two-high safety shells spread across the NFL like wildfire as everyone tried to keep passing offenses more in check. That zig -- lightening the box -- has created a zag opportunity in employing the best running backs you can find. Not every team is going to take that opportunity, and the ones that do were likely going to try to employ great running backs regardless of the broader position trends because they already valued pounding the rock. But it does help explain why kneecap-biters and Kyle Pitts Value Destroyers have joined forces to destroy what looked to be a rock-solid trend. There was not a running back drafted in the top 15 picks since Saquon Barkley went second overall in 2018, and even that pick was widely (and correctly) derided.
For fantasy purposes, both Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs will become instant hits to some extent. But after they were drafted, the NFL did not deem another back worthy of drafting until 52nd overall. The Dameon Pierce story, as easy as it felt like to see coming in 2022, is not a tale that often plays out.
It’s open-and-shut that Robinson is going to be the No. 1 running back for the Falcons. The question that creates is: What is that worth? We’re going to need to rely on our good friend The Assumption Of Rational Coaching as Atlanta split carries big-time last year and Allgeier finished as the leading rusher with just 210 carries. There’s no way Arthur Smith would bamboozle us again, right folks? But a lot of the projections I’m seeing for Robinson are more in the 275-300 carry range and I think I’d feel a lot more confident in him as a 250-carry back given what this staff has done for (and mostly to) us. That would create enough leeway for Allgeier to be in an early Tony Pollard sort of role as an obviously good back without an obvious niche to fill, and it would also give us a world where Arthur Smith would haughtily dress down Atlanta’s press corps when Robinson wasn’t in the game during a key series. If you believe Robinson is getting 300+ carries, I totally get the argument for him to be a top-five pick and a rock-solid RB1. I’m going to manage expectations a bit with Smith.
What excites me about Gibbs’ role in Detroit is the pass-catching possibilities. By the end of the season, there was not a single person on the Lions coaching staff who didn’t apparently hate D’Andre Swift with the power of a thousand suns. And yet ... he still was second on the team in targets, and those were valuable targets that earned him three touchdowns despite the fact he was seemingly tackled inside the five every time he touched the ball last season. Montgomery’s role is a little more pure Jamaal Williams than it would have been before Gibbs was added. If you combine the targets Swift and Justin Jackson got last season, you reach 89. Only Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey, and Rhamondre Stevenson are in or above that territory. Then you factor in a little upside in the event that Gibbs actually starts taking more first- and second-down reps than Swift did and I really like Gibbs’ chances of turning out at least an RB2 performance. A healthy Montgomery isn’t going to get every touchdown Williams did last season because nobody was going to do that, but he should at least be a reliable FLEX starter with a chance at 10 touchdowns in this offense.
And then the fallout of that decision sent Swift to Philadelphia, where he puts a real cap on the upside we were excited about early in the offseason for Penny. I’m a little less excited about this landing spot for Swift’s passing prospects because Nick Sirianni hasn’t drawn up many targets for backs and Kenneth Gainwell is still here, but if Swift gets the majority of the carries that Miles Sanders leaves behind, he’ll probably remain a reliable FLEX. This is a camp competition I want to stay on top of the reports for, and one where I can’t rule out a healthy Penny (akin to saying a healthy Michael Thomas) eventually getting the majority of the rushes on talent.
Veteran running backs who were arguably hurt by a pick: Kenneth Walker (Zach Charbonnet), Jamaal Williams and Alvin Kamara (Kendre Miller), Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson (Devon Achane), Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman (Roschon Johnson), Joe Mixon (Chase Brown), Derrick Henry (Tyjae Spears)
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I kind of feel like Charbonnet joining the Seahawks is a fantasy nothingburger. If Penny had been healthy last season, I think we would have seen a slow phase towards Walker. Now we have an unquestioned No. 1 back without a major injury history and Charbonnet will have to play on passing downs to get more than a series here or there in my opinion. Is Charbonnet going to keep Walker from 300 carries? Probably. Is it going to be enough to knock him down the ranks much? I can’t really see it. ... Another one that strikes me as unlikely to mean a lot is the appearance of Tyjae Spears in Tennessee. Henry was already barely-relevant on passing downs down the stretch of 2023 and the team started trying to spell him with Hassan Haskins and even Jonathan Ward. The Titans are doing more than Spears ever could to attack Henry’s fantasy value by threatening to fall into disrepair and start a rebuild with a rookie quarterback. I expect Spears to eventually make it on the field in 2023 because this team doesn’t have an obvious passing-down back, but I think his fantasy value is a 2024 joint.
With Miller missing early OTAs and likely to be cleared later in the offseason, I think this is the buy-low window for him while things are mostly quiet. He’ll make more noise in training camp with Alvin Kamara likely to be dealing with a court case at that time. I don’t think it’s entirely inconceivable that Miller does enough in training camp and in the first few weeks of the season to at least cut into Kamara’s role. In most fantasy leagues, though, I believe more in Miller as a 2024 prospect than someone especially likely to return value in 2023. Williams should be the constant, and Kamara should come back and do better in a less-expanded role whenever he actually does return. The uncertainty on when that is opens the door for Miller.
The dream of Achane is that he becomes Warrick Dunn right away and has enough speed and explosiveness that the Dolphins can’t take him off the field. The reality is probably that he’s only eased into that role early on, assuming no complications, and becomes more of a factor in the second half of the season. I love the fit in this offense, but I’m going to need to see real reporting backing the idea of his involvement before I think he’s a major threat to the two established backs. Mostert and Wilson are favored zero-RB back targets for me.
The over-the-top praise coming out about Roschon Johnson in the Chicago media makes me feel wildly uncomfortable -- the Bears all but declared him the best person in the draft -- but he is my favorite of this middle tier of backs because I think he can help in so many different ways, and my eyes open up quite a bit when I look at how little Herbert and Foreman are trusted as passing-down backs. Herbert appeared on just 68 Bears third-down plays last year. Foreman has 31 targets in five years in the NFL. If Johnson can get past Travis Homer early in camp, I think he has a lot of opportunity to get early playing time. There are probably also realistic scenarios where he impresses enough to get a share of Chicago’s early-down work by Week 10. Add the more star-gazing scenarios to this where injuries elevate him even further up the depth chart and I think this is a back with a lot of potential ways to find value in year one. He’s my buy of this group.
Veteran running backs who arguably saw a boost because of no/low-round draft pick additions: Nick Chubb and Jerome Ford, Jonathan Taylor, Rhamondre Stevenson, Samaje Perine, Josh Jacobs, Joshua Kelley, Tony Pollard, Alexander Mattison, Rachaad White, Cam Akers, James Conner, Zonovan Knight and Michael Carter
With the Browns reportedly not interested in bringing back Kareem Hunt, that opens 123 carries and 44 targets. Did you know that Nick Chubb had more receiving yards and only seven fewer targets than Hunt did last year? It’s true. It happened. It can’t unhappen. Jerome “Gerry” Ford (nickname only given for Rotoworld Gen-Z Shame Purposes) barely played last year and is being gifted the featured backup role. I think each of these players have had value increases. I’m more on the side of Chubb blowing up into the fantasy monster he’s always been able to be than I am on the side of Ford snagging 30 balls and rushing 100 times, but Ford now has a direct path to a high-value starting job and that comes with a boost. I would not be surprised if Chubb finished 2023 as a top-five running back by fantasy value. ... I also would not be surprised if Jonathan Taylor finished there, though Shane Steichen‘s offense was not exceptionally pass-heavy to running backs last season. Taylor’s main competition for the third-down role is Deon Jackson, who I’m not even sure will make the team. Zack Moss has almost no claim to pass downs after just 13 targets last season. Taylor will get a lot of deserved grief for disappointing squads with injuries last year. Remember when we did that to Christian McCaffrey all offseason and then he was a league-winner in 2022? Don’t double-count last year’s injuries.
Speaking of running backs who wound up without major challengers in their backfield, Rhamondre Stevenson is so bereft of competitors that former Patriots RB coach Ivan Fears had no choice but to praise Ty Montgomery last week. I’m sure we’ll get nuggets on Kevin Faulk next week. Only years of rampant Patriots Splitbackism have held Stevenson’s price to what it is this offseason. I think he’s a steal right now at RB10, and often available in the third round in standard drafts. ... Josh Jacobs will only have Zamir White anywhere near his wheelhouse. I’m concerned about how the Las Vegas offense will operate without Derek Carr, but you’re essentially already getting that priced in at his current ADP. I’m not thrilled if I land Jacobs, but I think that’s because he’s played enough seasons that we already understand what happens when he plays through injuries since he’s done that often in his career. ... Tony Pollard‘s current status, if we could freeze it in time, would be amazing for his fantasy value. What we need to do is band together, find someone to keep Jerry Jones away from news sites and social media for four months, and then tell him that Pollard actually is Ezekiel Elliott. Nobody correct him. We’re all in on this together.
Perine is the most exciting of the pass-down backs to me given a) I haven’t seen enough out of Sean Payton‘s mouth or Javonte Williams’ actions to shake my priors that Williams will be out for at least some of the season and b) Payton has never lacked for creative ways to scheme up fantasy points for running backs, going back to the days of yore when Darren Sproles roamed the Superdome turf. There’s not a single No. 3 back that scares me here as a hedge yet. I am gobbling down the Perine hopium and think it is madness that his ADP is outside of the top 100 as of this writing.
On to the unexciting wins: Let’s look at who is on this Tampa Bay depth chart at running back together:
I don’t know what drove Jason Licht to put together the most underwhelming group in the NFL at this position, but it’s hard to look at it and not believe Rachaad White will be the easy lead back on a team that loves to run the ball a ton. Now, will he take that job and provide “touchdowns,” maybe not! But he will definitely get a lot of work. By October we’ll look up and find, like, Jonas Gray is somehow here.
On a similar note we have Cam Akers’ rollout:
Yes, that is the same Kyren Williams that was a complete non-entity in 2022 and -- I guess? -- is somehow the third-down back here? Zach Evans is a worthy deep sleeper/last-couple-of-rounds best ball guy given the state of what’s around him. Akers has never been much of a three-down back but I do think there’s a world where he plays ahead of Williams, and the Rams should definitely want to run the ball more to make games shorter given the general state of their roster.
James Conner is on a team nobody likes to score points and thus, a team that nobody expects to actually run the ball. But the graveyard of backs that surround Conner on this depth chart are Keaontay Ingram (not drafted by current regime), Corey Clement, Ty’Son Williams, and UDFA “Emari Demercado.” He falls into that safe, bankable volume zone with White that I am not excited by, but must admit will return plenty of touches.
Now we’re in the backup zone: Kelley has a path to major snaps in a good offense if Austin Ekeler gets hurt, was barely pushed by Isaiah Spiller last year, and was mentioned by Kellen Moore upon signing. He makes a good stash back that could blossom. ... Alexander Mattison did have a back added to the Vikings backfield, but it was only seventh-rounder DeWayne McBride If the Dalvin Cook situation ever fully hits the fan, he’ll be in a great position in what profiles as a good offense. ... I am still shying away from Breece Hall at current ADP given how likely I think it is that he’ll be on the J.K. Dobbins plan. Knight and Carter project as a time-share in the event that he misses time, and given New York’s rough early schedule (BUF, @DAL, NE, KC, @ DEN, PHI before the bye) I slightly prefer Carter of the two.