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4 RB Dead Zone Running Backs to Avoid (2023 Fantasy Football)

4 RB Dead Zone Running Backs to Avoid (2023 Fantasy Football)

Our analysts have put together fantasy football outlooks for all fantasy-relevant players. You can find them on our player pages and via our Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR). These will be updated throughout the preseason to help you navigate your fantasy football drafts utilizing our bevy of tools, including our FREE draft simulator and cheat sheet creator. We’ll cover players in different groups to help you identify those to target and others to avoid. Let’s take a look at dead zone running backs to avoid drafting.

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.

Draft Wizard

Fantasy Football Wide Receivers to Target in the RB Dead Zone

Andrew Erickson shares 2023 fantasy football dead zone running backs to avoid.

Kenneth Walker III (SEA)

Kenneth Walker III stood as the RB8 from Weeks 6-17 after Rashaad Penny was placed on IR with a season-ending injury. The rookie was the RB9 in points per game. If you remove the two games, he missed due to injury (Weeks 13/14) he averaged 16.4 fantasy points per game, which would have placed him as the RB8 in points per game. Walker’s late ADP last season made him a draft-day steal.

We all knew that Rashaad Penny was never going to be “the guy” for the long run based on his injury track record and that Walker would likely take over RB1 duties as an uber-talented second-round pick. He did just that and got absolutely FED after returning from a late-season ankle injury. Walker was either consistently playing 70 percent-plus snaps or carrying the ball 23-plus times. And at times, we even saw Walker earn targets while leading the backfield in routes run.

But overall, he underwhelmed as a receiver as he did at the college level. And his tendency to look for home runs rushes resulted in a rushing success rate that ranked second-to-last (31.4%) among rushers with at least 100 carries in 2022. He also missed games because of injuries.

And his path to RB1 upside will be that much tougher to realize after the team added Zach Charbonnet in the second round of this year’s draft. Charbonnet posted the 5th-highest PFF receiving grade and tied for first in receptions per game (3.7) among his draft class. The former UCLA running back also finished with the highest positive run rate (57%) and lowest bust rate (4%) among drafted running backs.

The rookie Seahawk can’t deliver explosive rushes like Walker, but he can be trusted to hit doubles as a rusher and receiver consistently. That’s concerning for those hoping Walker was stepping into a workhorse role this season, which was very appealing about his fantasy profile last year.

Dameon Pierce (HOU)

The Houston Texans looked like they struck gold with Dameon Pierce early on during the season, as the rookie running back looked like the early favorite to take home offensive rookie of the year honors with a hot start. Pierce stepped in and immediately became the team’s bellcow in Week 2. From that time until Week 10, Pierce ranked 5th in the NFL in rushing yards (739) averaging north of 19 carries and 92 rushing yards per game. He was the fantasy RB12 overall and in points per game. Other Texans RBs combined for just 11 carries versus Pierce’s 154 over this stretch. However, the Florida product seemed to have hit a wall in the middle of the year totaling just 16 rushing yards against Washington and Miami through Weeks 11-12. However, these two defenses would turn out to be some of the tougher matchups for all RBs, so that’s likely the cause of Pierce’s fall-off in production. The tackle-breaking machine more than proved that he still had juice left in the tank with two strong outings to conclude his season versus Dallas and Cleveland. However, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury that would knock him out for the rest of the season – just 61 yards away from 1,000 rushing yards on the year. Despite the missed games, he still finished 4th in missed tackles forced and 1st in missed tackles forced per attempt (28%) among RBs with at least 100 carries. Pierce should lead the Texans backfield in 2023, but an entirely new coaching staff and Pierce’s 4th-round draft capital suggest that his undisputed workhorse role could change. Devin Singletary signed a one-year deal worth $3.75 million with the Texans, presumably to fill the role of Pierce’s primary backup. Singletary totaled just nine more carries than James Cook from Weeks 13-Week 20 but ended the year 10th in PFF rushing grade (two spots ahead of Pierce).

Overall, Singletary probably won’t unseat Pierce as the team’s No. 1 rusher, but he poses a much bigger threat to Pierce’s workload than JAGs like Rex Burkhead, Mike Boone, and Dare Ogunbowale. His PFF pass-blocking grade (73.2, 8th) might get him usage on passing downs as Pierce struggled in this capacity as a rookie (32.3, 52nd). Although it does work in Pierce’s favor that Singletary has never flourished as an actual receiver, giving Pierce the slight edge on attaining a full three-down workload if he can shore up his pass protection in Year 2.

Singletary’s addition shouldn’t completely change the way you view Pierce as it was highly unlikely the team would add zero running backs between now and the start of the season. He’s not the worst running back they could have added, but he’s hardly a reason to fully fade Pierce for fear that Singletary will carve out a massive role on offense.

Alexander Mattison (MIN)

Alexander Mattison smashed in most games that Dalvin Cook missed from 2020-2021. The Vikings RB2 posted five games with at least 23 touches over that stretch, including two games with 32 touches when Cook was sidelined. He averaged 23.7 PPR points and 90 rushing yards per game in those contests. The problem in 2022, was that Mattison never got the opportunity to carve out a bell cow role because Cook stayed healthy for the entire season. Aside from the occasional goal-line touch, Mattison operated strictly as RB2 for Minnesota. And that hurt Mattison’s chances of boosting his stock in free agency as he settled in on returning to his old team on a 2-year, $7MM contract with $6.35MM guaranteed.

The 25-year-old running back was at least efficient in 2022 when he carried the ball, finishing with a career-high 84.2 PFF rushing grade which ranked 15th among 61 running backs with at least 70 carries in 2022.

And although, he’s never been a featured back for an entire season — the glimpses of him in a full-time role as a Viking shed some light on his potential upside should he ascend to RB1 status. Dalvin Cook has been released, suggesting the job is Mattison’s to lose. Currently, it’s Ty Chandler, DeWayne McBride and Kene Nwangwu behind him on the depth chart. Still, there are risks involved selecting Mattison high in 2023 as there’s a lot of projection with him as the team’s featured back for an entire season. That’s something he has never done. And drafting players simply on the situation tends to not work favorably in the long run.

Remember, nobody ever vied for Mattison to get touches over Cook over the last four weeks. He was always the inferior back. So although he’s no longer the most inferior back on the roster, that doesn’t mean he is back to get overly excited about for fantasy football.

D’Andre Swift (PHI)

2022 was another year of ultimate teasing by D’Andre Swift. The Lions running back came out of the gates red hot, but got hurt. And when he returned, the Lions refused to give him the featured role in the backfield, opting to use Jamaal Williams as their goal-line battering ram instead.
Swift was still uber-efficient on a per-touch basis – fourth in fantasy points per touch, third in yards per carry, 23rd in points per game and 19th in yards after contact per attempt – but the lack of touchdowns and overall touches was soul-crushing. Swift seemed to never be 100% healthy at any point during the year, which likely influenced his reduced role. And Detroit’s lack of willingness to get Swift involved was a sign of things to come as they would eventually trade him to the Philadelphia Eagles for a future Day 3 pick.

With a full bill of health heading into 2023, Swift will again be productive on a per-touch basis in his new offense. But be warned that his injury history and draft capital spent on Swift guarantees him nothing under a new coaching staff in Philadelphia. Fantasy managers should also be aware that Swift and fellow newcomer Rashaad Penny are both solid rushers, posting identical success rates last season.

Swift also won’t be used as often in the passing game, after the Eagles finished dead last in RB target share last season (12.1%) and total RB targets.

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