As we prepare for the 2023 fantasy football best ball season, it’s essential to reflect on the lessons learned from the previous year. Understanding what strategies paid off and what didn’t is critical in preparing for a successful fantasy football draft.
In this best ball running back primer, we’ll take a deep dive into the “WHY” behind the successes and failures of last season to help guide you in drafting for this summer. With best ball leagues, there’s no such thing as starting too early, so let’s get to it.
- Best Ball Draft Primers: QB
- Introduction to Best Ball Leagues
- Dynasty Rookie Primers: QB | RB | WR | TE
2023 Best Ball Draft Strategy & Advice: Running Backs
Here’s what you should know about running backs as you prepare for your best ball drafts.
Running Back Advance Rates
We can leverage advanced and alive rates from Underdog’s Best Ball Mania III tournament to get a better understanding of which running backs (Weeks 1-14) helped teams advance at the highest rate into the playoffs (Weeks 15-17). Using advanced/alive rates is helpful because it’s already factoring in the draft day cost of the player compared to their raw points scored.
The highest RB alive rates came from Saquon Barkley (23%, ADP RB9), Cam Akers (22%, RB19), Jerick McKinnon (22%, RB61), Tyler Allgeier (18%, RB48), Rhamondre Stevenson (17%, RB32), Tony Pollard (16%, RB26), Devin Singletary (16%, RB35), Derrick Henry (12%, RB4), Miles Sanders (12%, RB28), Austin Ekeler (11%, RB3), James Conner (11%, RB15), David Montgomery (11%, RB20), AJ Dillon (11%, RB22), Josh Jacobs (11%, RB24), James Cook (11%, RB37), Kenneth Walker (11%, RB38), Jamaal Williams (11%, RB52) and Raheem Mostert (11%, RB55).
Among the top-7 running backs in alive rate, zero were drafted inside the top-8 running backs. Thirteen of the top 18 running backs with the highest alive rates were drafted at RB20 and beyond (outside the top 60 overall picks, which is typically out of or at the tail-end of the dreaded RB dead zone).
The highest RB advance rates came from Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams, and Nick Chubb. All running backs were discounted in some capacity, with none being selected inside the top-13 running backs. Chubb was drafted the highest at RB14.
Among the top-10 running backs in advance rate, only one was drafted as such (Christian McCaffrey). Sixteen of the top 20 running backs with the highest advance rates were drafted at RB24 and beyond (outside the top 70 overall picks, which is typically out of or at the tail-end of the dreaded RB dead zone).
You’ll also notice the timing variance of the RBs’ production. The slow starters – Tony Pollard, D’Onta Foreman, Jerick McKinnon, Samaje Perine, and Kenneth Walker – still ended up being useful with strong finishes. Just another reason to fade early-season opportunities in favor of late-season production when the weeks and points become that much more critical. Players get discounted substantially based on Week 1 projections, so savvy drafters should take full advantage.
One of the other major takeaways is that many of the RBs that hit played in an ambiguous backfield. That aligns with my research before the start of the 2022 season titled, “How to Identify Sleeper & Late-Round Running Backs to Target (2022 Fantasy Football).” You’ll also notice that the other major hitters were running backs that boasted pass-catching chops.
When compared to their WR counterparts, running backs also slightly fell flat. But not at the top. Among the top-5 combined advance rates for RBs and WRs, RBs owned four of the five highest. But among the top 25 hit rates, only eight were running backs. Six running backs finished inside the top 15. What this data suggests is that WRs are a better bet in the aggregate to return a positive advance rate, but hitting on the right running back late can be the true difference-maker.
The worst advance rates for RBs were drafted at slots RB12, RB1, RB6, RB23, RB5, RB8, and RB19. Stark difference from the hits going outside the top-2o running backs.
When analyzing points per game versus advance rates – only four of the top-ten scorers in points per game finished with top-ten advance rates. Five of the ten (and seven of the top 12) finished inside the top 10 in total points scored. The ADPs of these running backs were extremely front-loaded. Of the top-nine scoring RBs, six owned ADPs inside the top-10, with the others ranging from RB14-RB28.
Ergo, the top dogs at running back still tend to be drafted very early on (inside the top 10), and there’s credence to taking a stud early to lock in the production. Then you punt the position – the “hero” RB approach – with WR now at the forefront. And it’s not until your roster has been adequately filled with WRs, QBs, and/or an elite tight end that you dip your toes back into the RB pool. The goal should be to end drafts with five-to-six running backs, with most formats only requiring two starting RB slots. That’s why I like the hero RB approach so much. You’ve got one spot dialed in, and the other spot can be filled by the rotating carousel of remaining RBs on your roster.
For some additional context, I also looked back at the win rate percentages from the FFPC best ball drafts in 2021. Unlike the Underdog Drafts, four of the top-five advance rates belonged to WRs. Although it was more even in the top 12 overall, with six of each position being represented. But WR dominated yet again within the top 23, with a total of 16 WRs being part of that group.
Among the top 14 per ADP, just four RBs finished with win rates inside the top 10. It’s definitely an argument favoring at least one running back somewhere near the top because their ADP/win rates are slightly higher/less volatile than that of WRs. Among the top 24 per ADP, just two WRs finished with win rates inside the top 10. Three inside the top 20.
In 2022 FFPC best ball drafts, two RBs (Pollard and Jacobs) owned top-5 win rates. Only two WRs were in the top-10. Although it was more even in the top 12 overall. But WR dominated yet again within the top 23, with a total of 11 WRs being part of that group versus seven running backs.
Among the top 15 per ADP, zero RBs finished with win rates inside the top 10. Two (CMC and Ekeler) finished inside the top 15. Three inside the top 20 (Barkley).
There’s definitely an argument to be made for those who favor drafting at least one running back somewhere near the top because their ADP/win rates are slightly higher/less volatile than that of WRs. Among the top 24 per ADP, just two WRs finished with win rates inside the top 10. Three inside the top 20.
Addressing RB early aligns with my recommendations from Early Round Best Ball Strategies.
I’ve laid out my current best-ball RB rankings/tiers so you can better recognize the groups of players you should be targeting for the highest ROI based on their ADPs.
Andrew Erickson’s Best Ball Running Back Rankings & Tiers
There’s a reason why the first running back tier is stockpiled with 11 guys. There’s a plethora of established rushers and younger up-and-comers that I could easily see finishing either No. 1 overall or inside the top three/five. As I’ve already noted, hitting on just one of these particular RBs at the end of the first or start of the second round could pay major dividends. The fact that you can draft some RBs in best ball drafts like Breece Hall, Josh Jacobs and Rhamondre Stevenson in Round 3 or later is absolute blasphemy.
The guy I am easily most confident about returning on a high investment is the uber-consistent Nick Chubb. After all, he just put together the quietest 1,525 rushing-yard seasons in recent memory. The Browns running back averaged 5 yards per carry (again) and posted a career-high 13 touchdowns. He finished the year as the RB6 overall, but the majority of his fantasy production came before Deshaun Watson returned to the lineup. During Weeks 1-12, Chubb was the RB4 overall and in points per game. From Weeks 13-17 with Watson at quarterback, he was the RB23 overall and RB33 in points per game. These poor splits likely won’t carry over into 2023 based on Watson likely boosting the offense’s overall efficiency making Chubb a near-bust-proof draft pick based on his track record of consistency. Chubb also has a chance to capture a larger role as a receiver, with Kareem Hunt no longer on the roster. In Week 18, Chubb played a season-high 75% snap share, ran a route on 71% of dropbacks, and caught five-of-six targets for 45 yards.
Tier 2 is where I am much less bullish at running back. Again, these guys all have appeal in their ways and have paths to success. But whether it be due to age, declining production, or offensive environment question marks, I am not trying to pay up for any of these guys with glaring issues, hence their descent into Tier 2. I will be focusing more on WRs when these guys are drafted. However, I’d recommend being open to drafting one or two if their ADP falls dramatically. Because the market being “out” on certain players like Miles Sanders and Josh Jacobs ultimately made them players you needed to have in best ball to advance last season.
Projected bellcows such as Rachaad White, Cam Akers and James Conner stand out the most to me based on their suppressed ADPs outside the top-23 running backs and 75 overall selections in early best ball ADP.
Tier 3 is the breakout tier, with a few aging veterans looking to rebound sprinkled in. After getting at least one stud RB up to this point, this is the next group of running backs that I want to target in the later rounds. This range has traditionally been profitable when it comes to finding breakout RBs, evidenced by the highest alive/advanced rates of the RB20-RB36 tier and RB24-plus range previously mentioned.
My favorite target here pre-draft was Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier. RIP.
Brian Robinson Jr.‘s status as the Commanders’ starter on early downs entering the season will make 2024 free agent Antonio Gibson an enticing buy-low running back target based on his pass-catching prowess and RB1 fantasy production during his first two years in the league.
Remember that J.D. McKissic was released, slating Gibson to reprise the full-blown receiving role for Washington. Gibson’s 80.5 PFF receiving grade ranked third among all RBs in 2022.
The Seattle Seahawks selected Charbonnet in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft (52nd overall) pairing him with last year’s second-round pick, Kenneth Walker III. Charbonnet can’t deliver home run rushes like Walker, but he can be trusted to hit doubles as a rusher and receiver consistently. Charbonnet’s 3-down skill set combined with his draft capital suggests he will be used by the Seahawks plenty as a rookie, and he could end up being the better fantasy asset compared to Walker.
Keep in mind that head coach Pete Carroll is never afraid to shake things up when it comes to his backfield. The team drafted Rashaad Penny in the 1st round of the 2018 NFL Draft. But former 7th-round draft pick Chris Carson was the team’s leading rusher in 2018, 2019 and 2020. One of Charbonnet’s closest comparisons based on his size/weight is Carson.
How should you be valuing the NFL rookies post-draft?
After all, draft capital is a crucial factor to consider in fantasy football.
And it's why you should be drafting Zach Charbonnet 📝📝📝
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) May 3, 2023
You’ll find the more rookie RBs class in Tier 4, along with more ambiguous backfield RBs, backups with injury upside and some pass-catching running backs that can provide spike weeks – perfect in the best ball format.