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Best Ball: A Closer Look at ‘Dead Zone’ Running Backs (2023 Fantasy Football)

Best Ball: A Closer Look at ‘Dead Zone’ Running Backs (2023 Fantasy Football)

The Running Back Dead Zone is generally referred to as rounds 3-6, which historically speaking has been an area in drafts where running backs have performed poorly compared to wide receivers drafted in a similar range. As the wider public has become more aware of the Dead Zone in the last two years it has led to changes in the players we see there. Now, more than ever, wide receivers get pushed up the draft board as drafters avoid the running backs and this leads to running backs slipping further than they deserve to. Josh Jacobs dropped as far as the seventh round in 2022 and went on to be the RB3, proving his ADP wrong.

2023 Fantasy Football Best Ball Draft Advice

Best-Ball: A Closer Look at ‘Dead Zone’ RBs

Couple this awareness of the dead zone with the fact that 2022 was an incredible year for fantasy strategies like Zero RB and Hero RB which involve not pouring too many resources into the running back position before round seven onwards. In Best Ball, in particular, Zero RB won the Underdog regular season prize of a million dollars, another drafter used a Hero RB strategy to take down DraftKings Milly Maker contest and Pat Kerrane used a Dual RB start to win two million dollars in Best Ball Mania III. All of those drafts involved not taking a running back in the Dead Zone.

Spin forward to 2023 and drafters are pushing wide receivers up draft boards at an increasing rate, which is leading to running backs falling. In 2022 13 running backs had an ADP inside the top two rounds, along with nine wide receivers. Currently, in 2023 there are 15 wide receivers with a top 24 ADP and only seven running backs. The desire for an elite quarterback is also pushing running backs lower in drafts with three quarterbacks being drafted in round two.

2023 Dead Zone RBs

Player Team Position Underdog DraftKings Drafters FFPC Slim Average
Derrick Henry TEN RB 26.5 19.9 27.6 19.5 23.375
Josh Jacobs LV RB 27.4 24.8 24.3 15.4 22.975
Breece Hall NYJ RB 28.4 29.9 29.9 23.8 28
Rhamondre Stevenson NE RB 30 30.3 27.1 26.2 28.4
Travis Etienne JAX RB 34.8 33.1 35.8 32.1 33.95
Najee Harris PIT RB 38.5 37.9 38.9 32.8 37.025
Jahmyr Gibbs DET RB 38.6 36.6 34.1 31.8 35.275
Kenneth Walker SEA RB 46.9 43.9 46.5 32.8 42.525
Aaron Jones GB RB 55.2 46.6 54.3 42.4 49.625
Miles Sanders CAR RB 55.5 57.5 59.7 44.7 54.35
J.K. Dobbins BAL RB 57 59.9 57.4 42.5 54.2
Dameon Pierce HOU RB 61.6 64 67.3 53.8 61.675
Joe Mixon CIN RB 62.1 48 59.5 55.5 56.275
Dalvin Cook MIN RB 67.9 57.3 69.8 55.8 62.7
D’Andre Swift PHI RB 69.5 55.3 70.3 54.1 62.3
Isiah Pacheco KC RB 71.2 68.6 79.2 67.9 71.725

A whopping 16 running backs average a Dead Zone ADP across the top four best ball platforms, which is a marked increase from 2022 when twelve running backs were drafted in this area. Of those 12 only Josh Jacobs advanced to the Underdog playoffs at a rate significantly above the average advance rate of 16.7%.

Player ADP Playoffs Advance Rate Semifinals Adv Rate Finals Adv Rate
Leonard Fournette 24.31 13.10% 1.13% 0.13%
Nick Chubb 25.98 25.69% 1.61% 0.11%
James Conner 34.17 16.23% 1.55% 0.13%
Travis Etienne 39.03 17.79% 1.41% 0.06%
Ezekiel Elliott 40.90 17.91% 1.41% 0.07%
Breece Hall 46.98 15.68% 1.26% 0.06%
Cam Akers 49.16 11.31% 0.97% 0.28%
J.K. Dobbins 58.91 12.65% 1.32% 0.06%
David Montgomery 58.93 17.65% 2.66% 0.14%
AJ Dillon 64.52 13.70% 2.46% 0.14%
Elijah Mitchell 66.92 8.98% 0.80% 0.04%
Josh Jacobs 71.33 46.17% 2.84% 0.14%

Data via’s Underdog Advance Rate Explorer

With all of this in mind, which running backs stand the best chance of climbing out of the Running Back Dead Zone, or perhaps outperforming it even if their ADP stays there for the rest of the offseason?

Dynasty Rookie Draft Kit

Derrick Henry – Henry has seen his breakaway yards per game decline for three straight seasons, and the best hope that he outperforms his ADP is the receiving game, where in 2022 he set career highs in targets per game (2.8) and receiving yards per game (26.5).

Josh Jacobs – Last year’s biggest miss for many people, but with a new quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and no long-term deal, drafters are still keeping Jacobs’s ADP suppressed. At age 25 there are plenty of reasons to think Jacobs could be a top-five running back again.

Breece Hall – The only reason Hall’s ADP is outside the top two rounds is his recovery from a torn ACL. Unlike Javonte Williams, or JK Dobbins in 2021, Hall tore his ACL cleanly and if he starts training camp healthy, expect his ADP to be in Round 2 or higher, by the time drafts close. Now is a good time to gain some exposure to him.

Rhamondre Stevenson – In 2022 drafters were convinced Rhamondre Stevenson didn’t have a path to a top-end season, but when Damien Harris regressed the Patriots leaned on Stevenson and he delivered with the ninth-most PPR points at the position. Now, Harris has moved on to Buffalo and the Patriots have Stevenson and several late-round running backs that have never shown anything. Stevenson is a perfect candidate for a ‘Late-Hero RB’ build, where you take your Hero RB slightly later than usual but adhere to the rest of the strategy throughout.

Travis Etienne – The Jaguars added to their running back room by drafting Tank Bigsby, who can be a between-the-tackles, ground-and-pound type back that will perfectly complement Travis Etienne. Etienne wasn’t drafted by this regime and when they did move on from James Robinson last season, Etienne went on to be the RB17 between Weeks 8 and 17, averaging just 13.7 PPR points. Etienne may have flashed at times, but it seems the Jaguars don’t want an every-down back and Etienne might struggle to come good on his cost without that.

Najee Harris – Harris was possibly one of the worst picks of the early rounds last year and crashed down to Earth after an impressive rookie campaign where his 94 targets saw him be incredibly valuable, and the 53 he saw in 2022 might be more representative now he no longer has the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Harris’s injuries and below-average play opened the door for the impressive undrafted rookie, Jaylen Warren, to carve out a role and it’s hard to see Harris ever regaining the 85% snap rate he had in his rookie year.

Jahmyr Gibbs – The Lions surprised everyone by picking Gibbs with the twelfth overall pick and that high-end draft capital should go a long way to calming any worries about Gibbs weighing 199lbs. Montgomery likely gets more rushing work between the twenties and possibly at the goal line too, but Gibbs should see a lot of work in the receiving game, something he excelled at in college. For Gibbs to pay off he’ll need to score a lot of touchdowns and show that he can hold up in the rushing game and be a better option than David Montgomery.

Kenneth Walker – It seemed likely that Walker would be a Round 2 or higher pick this year, up until the Seahawks drafted Zach Charbonnet and while we shouldn’t completely give up on Walker, it seems likely that another running by committee has been born.

Aaron Jones – In 2022 AJ Dillon‘s yards per carry, missed tackles forced percentage, rushing EPA and fantasy points per touch all hit career lows as it became clear Aaron Jones was still the lead back in Green Bay. Dillon is a solid handcuff with occasional standalone value, but this backfield belongs to Aaron Jones and if the Packers do lean into the run to protect Jordan Love, Aaron Jones might be the best option on the Packers offense.

Miles Sanders – Free agency didn’t deliver too many great running back deals but Miles Sanders probably received one of the best. With only Chuba Hubbard for competition, Sanders is an interesting player to have some exposure to.

J.K. Dobbins – The recovery from a grizzly ACL injury took longer than we’d hoped, but between weeks 14-17, Dobbins led the league in rushing yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry with seven runs of 20+ yards. Is it possible with Todd Monken calling plays that the Ravens unleash Dobbins in a contract year? It certainly could be and John Harbaugh has talked up wanting to use the screen game more often. If everything comes together, Dobbins has league-winning upside.

Dameon Pierce – The Texans were connected with running backs in the draft but opted to do nothing after signing Devin Singletary in free agency. Pierce is the unquestioned RB1 in Houston, and having a capable backup might keep him fresh enough to keep breaking long runs late into the season. Pierce averaged 15.4 PPR points per game over Weeks 1-8 before hitting the wall and regressing to 9.8 for the rest of the season. Fresh legs can help him outshine this ADP.

Joe Mixon – legal issues and ambiguity have suppressed Mixon’s ADP as well as the fact he was outperformed by Samaje Perine down the 2022 stretch. With Perine in Denver and the Bengals committed to Mixon, it’s likely that barring a suspension, Mixon’s ADP climbs to around Round 3 by September. He should have every opportunity to outperform this ADP.

Dalvin Cook – It seems inevitable that Cook will be cut or traded by the Vikings and there just aren’t that many teams he could go to and find a three-down role.

D’Andre Swift – It’s true that Swift has upgraded to a better offense this offseason, with his trade to the Eagles, but the Eagles pass to the running backs at a far lower rate and Swift doesn’t profile as the kind of rusher who will take control of a committee backfield and make it his own.

Isiah Pacheco – The Chiefs were slow to turn over this backfield to Pacheco in 2022, with injuries to Clyde Edwards-Helaire and tired legs for Jerick McKinnon perhaps the key points. The Chiefs have done little to upgrade behind Pacheco, but it still seems hard to imagine him as an every-down back.

Cam Akers – Do the Rams like Cam Akers? If you know the answer to that question it might be a lot easier to place faith in this situation. The Rams have tried to rebuild their offensive line this offseason, but it’s still a long way from being a difference-making unit. The Rams are one of the pass-heaviest teams in the red zone, which further makes Akers’ battle to be a top running back even harder. As his ADP reflects, he seems like one of the least likely to outperform the Running Back Dead Zone.

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