Must-Have Running Backs (2023 Fantasy Football)
The NFL’s free agency period is underway. It’s the perfect time to revisit running backs after some landed in new homes or returned to the clubs they played for last year. But, of course, the landscape will change again after draft prospects find homes. Regardless, with best ball booming, there’s no offseason for drafting fantasy football teams. Currently, two upcoming running backs with an expert consensus ranking (ECR) after 120 in half-point point-per-reception (PPR) formats are must-have backs available to anyone from any draft slot.
- NFL Free Agency Primers
- Introduction to Best Ball Leagues
- Underdog Best Ball Strategy
- Erickson’s Best Ball Positional Primers
Must-Have Running Backs in March 2023
Rashaad Penny – Philadelphia Eagles: 122.8 ECR and RB41
As I suggested in February, Penny signed a one-year prove-it deal in free agency. The Eagles signed Penny to a one-year contract with a base salary of $1.35 million, only $600,000 guaranteed and a max value of $2.1 million. Philadelphia also retained Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell is still on the club. So they could conceivably roll into 2023 with this trio. Yet, Penny’s contract doesn’t preclude them from drafting a running back if one they love is available.
The landing spot is undeniably dreamy, though. Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Football Outsiders both graded Philadelphia’s run blocking favorably in 2022, with the former ranking them as the third-best and the latter ranking them sixth in Adjusted Line Yards (4.66). Further, the Eagles had an uptempo offense. In fact, per Football Outsiders, they were first in situation-neutral pace last season.
Miles Sanders thrived as Philadelphia’s primary ball carrier last year. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Sanders averaged 74.6 rushing yards per game at 4.9 yards per attempt on 15.2 rushes per game. He also splashed paydirt 11 times, all on the ground. However, Sanders was a non-contributor in the passing attack, averaging 1.2 receptions and 4.6 receiving yards per game. Nevertheless, Sanders was the RB14 in half-point PPR points per game (12.7).
Did Sanders need his touchdown fortune to turn around after scoring zero touchdowns in 2021 to finish as a high-end RB2 in 2022? Yes. Yet, his excellence demonstrated a possible path for Penny to excel in fantasy leagues in the Eagles’ high-octane offense. Despite many injury setbacks throughout his career, Penny has been a more dynamic and efficient runner than Sanders. The following table will show their rushing metrics in 2022 and throughout their career via PFF.
Injuries have been the only thing to slow down Penny. Fortunately, all things considered, they've been various injuries instead of a reoccurring injury. Maybe, a change of scenery will help Penny put together a healthy campaign.
Thankfully, the injuries haven't sapped Penny of his explosiveness. He had 10 rushes of 10-plus yards and six of 15-plus yards on 57 attempts last year. In addition, per PFF, Penny's 4.23 yards after contact per attempt (YCO/A) was the highest mark among running backs with at least 50 attempts in 2022. According to PlayerProfiler, Penny's combination of size and his 4.46-second 40-yard dash produced a 93rd-percentile speed score. His big-play ability could get a lift next year behind Philly's butt-kicking offensive line and with the aid of defenses accounting for Jalen Hurts' rushing and passing ability. Again, Penny couldn't have landed in a better spot for his fantasy value in 2023. The veteran running back's average draft position (ADP) will likely climb, but he's worth a top-100 pick.
Jeff Wilson - Miami Dolphins: 127.4 ECR and RB44
The Dolphins are running it back with their running backs. They've re-signed Wilson, Raheem Mostert and Myles Gaskin. Wilson and Mostert agreed to two-year deals with Miami, and the contract details for this season are similar, per Spotrac. So, the dollar figures don't shed any light on which back has the leg up.
Most likely, they'll share the backfield, as they did after the Dolphins traded for Wilson last year. The team is also unlikely to spend a premium pick on a running back in the NFL Draft since they only hold picks 51 (second round), 84 (third round), 178 (sixth round) and 240 (seventh round). Thus, there's a strong possibility the Dolphins will enter the year with Wilson and Mostert atop the depth chart.
The duo played six games together last year after excluding one contest against the Chargers when Wilson left early with a hip injury. The following tables show breakdowns of the stats from PFF for both players in those six contests.
Wilson had advantages over Mostert in rushes, rushing yards, routes, targets and receiving yards. And, again, Wilson was acquired via a trade during the season. Could he earn a larger share of the pie with an entire offseason on the team? Maybe. Regardless, Wilson should be drafted slightly earlier than Mostert based on last year's usage. Both are stellar targets as cheap exposure to Miami's explosive offense, but Wilson should be the priority if picking only one of the two.
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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.