It’s game-changing for a fantasy squad’s outlook when they land an RB1 drafted significantly lower than a top-12 RB’s average draft position (ADP). But how can gamers identify an RB3 or lower capable of an RB1 finish? Looking at RB1s in the last three years can paint a picture of the boxes a potential RB1 needs to check. The following players can exceed the expectations for their Underdog Fantasy half-point point-per-reception (PPR) ADP and rank among running backs.
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RB3 with RB1 Potential in 2023
Three running backs drafted outside the top-24 running backs in Underdog Fantasy’s best ball drafts have the profile befitting a potential RB1 in 2023.
Anatomy of an RB1 since 2020
Running back is a position frequently depleted by injuries. As a result, a survivor bias often allows a few running backs to sneak into the top 12 in total points every season by merely playing in all 16 games (15 in 2020) at a rock-solid level during the fantasy season. Yet, it doesn’t paint the most accurate picture. At the same time, using only points per game without accounting for games played is a flawed decision. So, I’ve split the difference.
The following tables show the half-point PPR point-per-game (PPG) running back leaders in the previous three years who played at least 10 games. Gamers can check out the full listing for fantasy leaders in 2022, 2021, and 2020 on our Fantasy Football Leaders page. There were 38 running backs who were top-12 PPG scorers during those three years because of a three-player tie for RB12 in 2022.
Touchdowns are a nifty path to an RB1 finish. In the last three years, 27 RB1s had at least 10 touchdowns. But touchdowns weren't the most common theme among RB1s. Most of the running backs had at least some role in the passing game, with 33 running backs averaging at least 2.1 receptions per game.
Understandably, the best fantasy backs churned out yardage. All 38 running backs averaged at least 72 scrimmage yards per game, and 32 had at least 80. Obviously, there's a sliding scale for receptions and scrimmage yards needed to offset a modest touchdown output. So, 10 of the 11 running backs who were RB1s and didn't score at least 10 touchdowns had at least 82 scrimmage yards, seven had more than 89 scrimmage yards, three had more than 100 scrimmage yards, 10 had at least 2.5 receptions per game, eight had at least 3.5 receptions per game and four had at least 4.1 receptions per game. Thus, there are a few paths to an RB1 finish.
Cam Akers (RB - LAR): 81.0 Underdog Fantasy ADP and RB28
Akers had a dreadful beginning to his 2022 campaign and appeared to be on the way off of the Rams' roster. Instead, he concluded his season with a bang after taking a stranglehold on lead-back duty.
In the final four games of the regular season, Akers was second in rushing yards (345) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (three) among running backs. In addition, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and was tied for fifth in missed tackles forced (12) on rushes. Akers also showcased explosion, ripping off seven rushes for 10-plus yards and four for 15-plus yards.
Akers also had an encouraging role in the passing game. Per PFF, he was ninth among running backs in routes (77) from Week 15 through Week 18. In those four games, Akers was significantly ahead of Malcolm Brown (12 routes) and Kyren Williams (four). Akers had a respectable nine receptions for 98 scoreless yards, but the involvement was promising for a bell-cow role in 2023.
The Achilles injury is in his rearview mirror, and D'Onta Foreman's ability to return to form from the same injury is a positive data point to support Akers' late-season surge carrying over into next year. Akers's late-season efficiency and potential for a workhorse role are grounds for reaching ahead of his ADP to secure him.
James Cook (RB - BUF): 91.0 Underdog Fantasy ADP and RB30
Cook had a solid-if-unspectacular rookie season. However, how he produced was surprising. The Bills traded back twice in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft before picking Cook at 63.
Buffalo's brass was desperate to add a pass-catching back to their backfield after an abrupt about-face from J.D. McKissic and a return to Washington, despite agreeing to terms with the Bills. According to PFF, Cook had 27 receptions for 274 yards, 1.63 Yards per Route Run (Y/RR), and four touchdowns in 2021 at the University of Georgia. Cook was moved around Georgia's formation, aligning wide on 8.0% of his passing snaps and in the slot at an 11.1% clip. He was also targeted beyond the line of scrimmage, owning a 2.6-yard Average Depth of Target (aDOT) and netting 12 targets from zero to nine yards downfield, one 10 to 19 yards, and one 20-plus yards downfield in his final season at Georgia.
Yet, Cook had only 1.3 receptions per game, 11.3 receiving yards per game, and one receiving touchdown in his rookie season for the Bills. Simply, Josh Allen didn't take short throws often and chucked it deep or scrambled. Fortunately, Cook's work in the passing game wasn't without any promising nuggets. Instead, he was targeted on 22.3% of his routes, aligned in the slot on 9.8% and wide on 12.1% of his passing snaps, and had a 2.3-yard aDOT.
Cook's alignment versatility could result in an uptick in higher-value targets than swing passes and help his cause for garnering targets, even if Allen doesn't take a step forward with utilizing his running backs instead of scrambling. Still, general manager Brandon Beane emphasized the importance of limiting the hits Allen takes. Perhaps offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey will make a concerted effort to increase the volume of short passes in his second year as a play-caller.
Cook was surprisingly effective as a runner and commanded a larger share of the pie later in the year. Cook's explosive ability yielded 5.6 yards per carry, 31.7 rushing yards per game, and two touchdowns in a committee role. Devin Singletary is a free agent, and Buffalo's second-round investment should assure Cook of a meaningful role in their offense this year.
Further, second-year running backs have emerged as RB1s in recent years. Since 2020, five second-year backs have finished as RB1s, with two reaching that height in 2020, two in 2021, and one in 2022. The five backs were selected in the first, second, second, third, and fourth rounds, respectively.
Cook's combination of gaining chunk rushing yards and touching the ball more than 100 times yielded interesting company. According to StatHead, 17 running backs had at least 5.0 yards per carry, 600 scrimmage yards, and 100 touches in their first season since 2014.
The high-end names on the list were Alvin Kamara, J.K. Dobbins, Nick Chubb, Travis Etienne Jr., Jonathan Taylor, Ezekiel Elliott, and Saquon Barkley. Sadly, it wasn't a flawless list. Jalen Richard, Thomas Rawls, Karlos Williams, Kerryon Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, Jordan Howard, Jeremy Hill, and Singletary were some less exciting to downright disappointing names. However, when including the stipulation of players drafted in the first three rounds of their class, the list has Kamara, Dobbins, Johnson, Chubb, Singletary, Etienne, Zeke, Hill, Taylor, and Barkley. Overall, that's a sweet list. Finally, Buffalo's high-octane offense is a plus for Cook's 2023 outlook.
Zach Charbonnet (RB - FA) (Rookie): 104.0 Underdog Fantasy ADP and RB34
The prospect evaluation period for the NFL Draft is in full swing, but prospects will see their stock rise and fall when they test at the NFL Draft Combine and their pro days. So, Charbonnet's fantasy outlook could change significantly, depending on his testing results.
Nevertheless, he has the requisite size and production to project as an every-down back in the NFL. He's 6'1" and 220 pounds. Charbonnet's weight puts him in good company for recent rookies who were RB1s. Since 2020, four running backs were RB1s in their first campaign. They were 219, 226, 228 and 232 pounds. The rookies who were RB1s were also selected in the first, second and third rounds, with one undrafted free agent, James Robinson, immediately ranking among the top running backs.
Charbonnet is projected as one of the top running back prospects at a couple of notable outlets. PFF ranks him as the second-best running back and 52nd on their Big Board. In addition, ESPN ranks him fourth among running backs and 96th overall. The Draft Network also had a glowing scouting report for Charbonnet.
And, again, Charbonnet was highly productive, culminating in an excellent final collegiate campaign at UCLA. According to PFF, Charbonnet had their fourth-highest rushing grade, 1,358 rushing yards, 7.3 yards per carry and 14 rushing touchdowns and was 17th in Yards After Contact per Attempt (4.15 YCO/A) and tied for 31st in missed tackles forced (53) out of 233 running backs at the FBS level who carried the ball at least 75 times in 2022.
Thankfully, Charbonnet isn't just an early-down banger. Out of 80 FBS running backs targeted at least 25 times in 2022, Charbonnet had PFF's 10th-highest receiving grade, tied for ninth in receptions (37), was eighth in receiving yards (320) and was 21st in Yards per Route Run (1.30 Y/RR) in 10 games. So as long as Charbonnet doesn't bomb his testing, he should have stellar draft capital. And if he lands in a favorable situation, he could be a bell-cow out of the gate. As a result, he's worthwhile dice roll with a top-100 pick and inside the top-30 running backs.