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Dynasty Startup Draft Primer: Running Back Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023 Fantasy Football)

Dynasty Startup Draft Primer: Running Back Strategy, Rankings & Tiers (2023 Fantasy Football)

Back in the Mesozoic Era of fantasy football, when brontosauruses roamed the earth and pterodactyls filled the skies, our game was ruled by the running backs. It was understood that RBs were the headliners of fantasy football and essential for success.

Fast-forward to the modern era of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, PPR scoring and dynasty leagues. Running backs are no longer the rulers of all they survey — at least not in the dynasty realm. A handful of surviving dinosaurs refuse to acknowledge this reality. But the truth is that RB is not the most important position in dynasty leagues.

That’s not to say running backs are unimportant. We still want prolific point scorers in our RB slots. But we don’t want to invest so heavily in RB strength that it’s to the detriment of other positions. Running back should be a position of coupon-clipping and comparison-shopping.

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Why the cheapskate approach to RB? Put simply, it’s because running backs have short NFL life spans. They are the mayflies of fantasy football.

Some RBs defy the actuarial tables and provide five or more years of quality production. They are the outliers. Most running backs give us 2-3 years of flame before burning out. They are disposable lighters, not Zippos.

In addition to the shorter career arcs for NFL running backs, consider that RB is a more unpredictable position than QB, WR or TE. It’s not uncommon for a running back to emerge from obscurity to become a productive fantasy contributor. We tend to see that sort of thing happen less at the other positions, where what you pay for is usually what you get.

In 2020, I drafted rookie James Robinson in the last round of a 28-round dynasty startup, and he gave me two years of high-level production. Rhamondre Stevenson, Tony Pollard and Aaron Jones were Day 3 picks in the NFL Draft. Austin Ekeler went undrafted. That’s not to say you’ll strike gold every time you go mining for late-round RBs in a startup draft, but there are nuggets to be found. It’s much more rare to hit on a late-round gem at the other positions.

It’s no coincidence that NFL teams pay RBs less than they pay players at other positions, or that it’s increasingly rare for RB to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. The NFL treats running backs as fungible assets. Dynasty managers should do the same.

Don’t hammer the RB position in the early rounds of fantasy drafts. If you want to draft an anchor RB while paying proper respect to other positions, go for it. If you want to capitalize on a couple of RB bargains in the first 5-6 rounds, fine. But do not build your dynasty team around a collection of star running backs taken in the early rounds of a startup. Your team will be a house of cards.

Instead, draft running backs opportunistically. Take value where you can find it in the middle and later rounds. And if you fall so far behind at the RB position in your startup draft that you can’t dig out of the hole, don’t panic. You’re playing in a dynasty league. People make a ton of trades. In neglecting running backs, you undoubtedly loaded up at other positions and will have areas of strength from which you can deal.

Dynasty Rookie Draft Kit

Dynasty Startup Strategy, Rankings & Tiers: Running Backs

Before we go on, I’m going to repeat something I wrote in the Dynasty Startup Draft Primer for QBs because it also applies to RBs (and other positions, too). Before you start drafting in a dynasty startup, chart a course and then build a coherent draft strategy around it.

Dynasty Startup Draft Strategy

Charting a course means deciding when you expect your team to establish its dynastic reign over the league. Here are the three primary options:

  • Win now: Establish your dominance immediately. While your competitors focus on youth in the startup draft, scoop up proven veterans at discounted prices and build a roster that will be a favorite for the league title in Year 1.
  • Win in Year 2: Focus on youth but mix in some proven veterans. Your young roster might not have the juice to win right away, but you’ll have a collection of players likely to have increased in value after Year 1, positioning you to contend in Year 2.
  • Productive struggle: (Hat tip to Ryan McDowell of Dynasty League Football for coining the term.) Commit to a slow build that will put you in title contention in 2-3 years. Focus heavily on youth in the startup draft and be willing to trade startup picks for picks in future rookie drafts.

The course you choose might have a slight impact on how aggressively you draft running backs. It will have a bigger impact on your willingness to draft older running backs.

If you’re in win-now mode, Derrick Henry is a logical draft target. Henry is 29 and approaching the twilight of his career, if he’s not there already. Henry won’t come off the board as early in dynasty startups as he will in redraft leagues because of his age, so you might be able to get him as late as the fifth round of a 1QB startup or the sixth round of a superflex startup. But if you’re aiming to win in Year 2 or committing to a productive struggle, Henry should not be a draft target for you.

Running Back Draft Strategies

Let’s discuss three popular RB strategies and their applications for dynasty startups.

  • Zero RB: Ignore running backs entirely in the early rounds and load up on pass catchers (and perhaps QBs in superflex drafts). It’s a controversial but viable strategy in redraft leagues. It’s an even more effective strategy in dynasty leagues if you’re building for Year 2 or beyond and not trying to win right away.
  • Hero RB: Get a top RB in the early rounds, then focus on other positions until the middle rounds. This strategy can work with a win-now or win in Year 2 approach. It doesn’t fit as well with a productive struggle, since RB career arcs are so short your hero RB might be past his peak by the time your team is ready to contend.
  • Robust RB: Load up on RBs in the early rounds. For reasons outlined earlier, this strategy is not recommended for dynasty formats, although there’s a case to be made that it’s a viable strategy if you’re in win-now mode.

Let’s sort the top 15 running backs into baskets based on where they’re likely to be chosen in startup drafts. I’m going to include rookies, since a couple of the running backs in the Class of 2023 are highly coveted fantasy assets. Estimated round values are based on league formats that require you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX.

Running Back Rankings & Tiers

Elite

These guys are top-10 picks in 1QB leagues, top-20 picks in SF leagues.

Robinson has yet to play an NFL game, but he’s the total package and has his entire career ahead of him. …Taylor is coming off an injury-plagued season but has proven that he’s a needle-mover when healthy. … Hall was emerging as a difference-making workhorse when he tore his ACL in late October. He should be good to go by Week 1.

Foundational

Expect these guys to come off the board somewhere from the late first round to early third round in 1QB startups and in the second or third round of SF startups.

McCaffrey might be teeing off on the back nine of his career, but he’s a dangerous and versatile weapon playing in a high-powered offense. … Barkley has a checkered injury history but is a terrific run/catch threat when healthy, and he was able to dodge the injury bug in 2022. … The Lions’ significant draft investment in Gibbs – not to mention the subsequent defenestration of D’Andre Swift — bodes well for the rookie’s future.

High-Quality

Expect these RBs to go in the second or third round of 1QB startups and in the third or fourth round of SF startups.

Etienne is an exciting young RB in an ascendant offense. It’s not entirely clear how the Jaguars want to use him, however. … Walker was terrific as a rookie and would be on the Foundational tier if the Seahawks hadn’t drafted Zach Charbonnet in April. … Jacobs thrived in a workhorse role with the Raiders last season after an uneven start to his career. Pollard has been terrific in limited doses and now figures to get more work in 2023 with Ezekiel Elliott out of the picture in Dallas. … Ekeler is among the best pass-catching RBs in NFL history and should be able to keep putting up big numbers for a few more years.

Exciting, but …

Expect these RBs to go in the third or fourth round of 1QB startups and in the fourth or fifth round of SF startups.

Williams looked like a future star as a rookie in 2021 but tore his ACL and LCL early last season, making his ascent less of a certainty. … Chubb is one of the best pure runners in the game but doesn’t catch a lot of passes. … Stevenson became the Patriots’ featured back last season but has to prove that he can hold down the job. … Harris carries a heavy load for the Steelers but hasn’t been very efficient or explosive.

Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts about drafting running backs in dynasty startups:

  • Once the top 20-25 running backs are off the board, draft opportunistically at the position. Keep in mind that RBs have relatively short career arcs, so don’t overdraft ones who aren’t likely to give you high-level production.
  • The vast majority of dynasty leagues are PPR, so pass-catching matters. Favor the RBs who’ll be on the field on obvious passing downs rather than the early-down plodders who won’t draw many targets.
  • In the later rounds of a startup draft, don’t be afraid to backfill your RB depth chart with older veterans who have limited but secure roles. A 28-year-old running back who’s in a committee is more likely to help you than a second-year RB who was drafted in the seventh round and spent his first NFL season on a practice squad.

Fitz’s Dynasty Startup Draft Running Back Rankings

2023 Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyProsECR (TM) – Expert Consensus Rankings

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