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

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

Proponents of the robust-RB strategy are jokingly referred to as “dinosaurs.” It’s an apt comparison.

Dinosaurs were fearsome creatures who roamed the Earth millions of years ago until a giant asteroid slammed into Earth, triggering climate changes that wiped out the great reptilian beasts.

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

In the 1990s and early 2000s, robust-RB drafters who chose the right running backs rampaged through their leagues like velociraptors, devouring the weak. But the climate has changed in fantasy football over the last 20 years, thinning the herd of robust-RB drafters. Those who survive are no longer the fearsome hunters who terrorized the fantasy landscape a quarter century ago. They are struggling to adapt to a radically altered environment.

An asteroid was responsible for killing the dinosaurs. RB-by-committee is the asteroid killing off robust-RB drafters.

In 1998, 11 running backs had 300 or more regular-season carries (led by Jamal Anderson’s 410), and 20 running backs had 245 or more carries.

In 2022, three running backs had 300 or more regular-season carries, and eight running backs had 245 or more carries.

The robust-RB approach doesn’t work as well these days because modern running backs aren’t as robust themselves.

In the ’90s and early aughts, taking running backs early in fantasy drafts made sense because it was a safe bet that Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, et al. would get mammoth workloads.

Which running backs can we turn to for reliably high touch volume in 2023? Derrick Henry is probably a lock for heavy volume if healthy. Beyond that? Good luck finding a workhorse. Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley, Bijan Robinson, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris all have a chance to be high-volume RBs. Other candidates for beefy workloads include Breece Hall, Cam Akers, Joe Mixon and Alexander Mattison.

But the numbers say there won’t be nearly as many high-volume runners as there were in the robust-RB era. Over the last three years, there have been only 15 instances of a running back getting 250 or more carries in a season.

Other Considerations When Drafting RBs

There’s a philosophy that guides both my financial investments and my fantasy football investments: I prefer to make my heaviest investments in stable assets rather than unstable assets.

Running backs are unstable assets.

Aside from kickers and defenses, RB is perhaps the least predictable position in fantasy. As I noted in my WR primer, we routinely see running backs taken in the mid to late rounds of fantasy drafts emerge as impactful performers. However, it’s far less common to see wide receivers emerge from the middle and late rounds of fantasy drafts and make an impact.

In 2022, nine of the 12 wide receivers with average draft positions (ADPs) in the WR1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR) at the position. Two of the other three — Mike Evans and Tee Higgins — finished 13th and 14th, respectively, in fantasy points per game (FPPG) among receivers who played at least nine games. The only receiver to be drafted in the WR1 range last year and finish outside the top 14 in fantasy points per game was Deebo Samuel, who finished 25th in FPPG.

For the sake of comparison, seven of the 12 running backs with ADPs in the RB1 range finished top 12 in fantasy points per game last season. Tony Pollard‘s average draft position last year was RB30, and he finished RB7 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring. Jamaal Williams‘ ADP was RB53, and he finished RB8.

It’s important to consider league settings when plotting an RB strategy for your draft.

There aren’t as many standard-scoring leagues — or, if you prefer, non-PPR leagues — as there used to be. But standard-scoring leagues tend to be more RB-friendly than PPR leagues since the point-per-reception setting tends to favor WRs over RBs.

Perhaps even more important than your league’s scoring system is its lineup configuration. Are you required to start two WRs each week or three?

I’m more amenable to drafting RBs early in 2WR leagues. In 3WR leagues, strength at wide receiver is critical, and I’m willing to make sacrifices at RB to ensure strength at WR. If your league requires you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX, at least 37.5% of your non-defense, non-kicker starters will be WRs. That percentage would jump to 50% if you put a WR in the flex spot. You can’t afford to be weak at wide receiver in such leagues.

Four Approaches to Drafting RBs

Let’s look at four strategies for drafting running backs.

Zero RB: Pioneered by Shawn Siegele of RotoViz, this strategy involves bypassing RBs in the early rounds of your draft and focusing heavily on pass catchers with early picks.

Hero RB: A variation on Zero RB, this strategy allows for the drafting of a top running back in one of the first two rounds of your draft, with other early-round picks dedicated to non-RBs.

Robust RB: A strategy referenced earlier in this article, Robust RB involves an RB-heavy approach in the early rounds — typically three RBs in the first four rounds.

Opportunistic RB: This is basically just a value-hunting approach to the position. Is there value at RB in the early rounds? Jump on it. If not, be patient and get your RBs later.

I lean toward Zero RB and Hero RB builds, though every once in a great while, I’ll shift into Opportunistic RB mode if the values on early-round RBs are irresistible. Robust RB is a strategy I reject for the reasons outlined earlier in this article.

Running Back Rankings & Tiers

Here are the top 50 running backs in my redraft rankings, sorted into tiers, with thoughts on some of the players from each tier.

Draft Wizard

Tier 1

  • Christian McCaffrey
  • Bjian Robinson

The 49ers seem disinclined to give McCaffrey the sort of massive workload he had during his best seasons in Carolina. But that’s probably a good thing for CMC’s health. After arriving in San Francisco last season, McCaffrey averaged 110 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns in 11 games.

Robinson is widely regarded as the best, most complete RB prospect to enter the league since Saquon Barkley in 2018, and run-obsessed Falcons head coach Arthur Smith will ensure the team gets its money’s worth from the rookie.

Tier 2

  • Austin Ekeler
  • Nick Chubb
  • Jonathan Taylor
  • Tony Pollard
  • Saquon Barkley
  • Derrick Henry

Ekeler was the RB1 in half-point PPR fantasy scoring last year, and much of his value was derived from his contributions as a pass catcher. He had a career-high 107 receptions for 722 yards. But the Chargers’ passing game was far too horizontal last year under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and the team has since dumped Lombardi in favor of former Cowboys OC Kellen Moore. No doubt Moore will make good use of Ekeler, but it’s unlikely that Ekeler will catch 100+ passes again.

Arguably the best pure runner in the game, Chubb could have a larger role this season now that the Browns have parted ways with Kareem Hunt.

Sure, Taylor’s 2022 season was a massive disappointment, but a high-ankle sprain and the Colts’ abominable QB play were factors. The bigger concern now is Taylor’s contract-related beef with the Colts’ front office. But that impasse could create a buying opportunity if other fantasy managers get cold feet. Taylor scored 32 touchdowns in his first 32 NFL games. He led the league in rushing in 2021 and averaged 127.7 yards from scrimmage per game. Mobile quarterbacks tend to boost the rushing efficiency of their RBs because defenses have to honor the possibility of the QB keeping the ball and running himself. I’m excited to see what Taylor can do with mobile rookie Anthony Richardson at quarterback.

Pollard has been a highly efficient runner (5.1 yards per carry for his career), but he’s been a change-of-pace back behind Ezekiel Elliott. If the Cowboys give him more work this year, will Pollard lose some of his efficiency?

It was great to see Barkley stay healthy in 2022 after injuries marred his previous three seasons. But it’s worth noting that he tapered off later in the season. In Weeks 1-10, Barkley averaged 18.4 half-point PPR fantasy points per game. From Week 11 on, he averaged 12.9 FPPG.

Henry poses an interesting dilemma. He’s a true workhorse — a throwback to an era when lead RBs routinely logged 20+ carries a game. But Henry will turn 30 before the end of the season, he’s logged 2,046 career touches (including playoffs), and his supporting cast in Tennessee is rancid.

Tier 3

Harris had a disappointing 2022, but he was dealing with a sprained lisfranc early in the season. He averaged 59.1 yards from scrimmage over the first eight games of the season, 87.8 yards from scrimmage over his last nine. Harris has averaged 20.4 touches a game over his first two seasons, and the Steelers made significant upgrades to their offensive line in the offseason.

Jacobs led the league with 1,653 rushing yards last season and added 53 catches for 400 yards. But the Raiders put the franchise tag on Jacobs after not picking up his fifth-year option a year ago, and Jacobs remains unsigned as of this writing.

The Patriots have been notorious for their commitment to the RB-by-committee approach in recent years, but Stevenson slid into a leading role for the Pats in 2022, and the team has since parted ways with Damien Harris.

Hall was emerging as a difference-making workhorse when he tore his ACL in late October. He should be good to go for Week 1, and the Jets’ offense gets a substantial overall upgrade with Aaron Rodgers taking over at QB. The Jets’ potential addition of Dalvin Cook could put a dent in Hall’s workload, however.

Tier 4

After being used sporadically during the first two-thirds of the season, Akers led the NFL in rushing over the final six weeks and ranked RB4 in half-point PPR scoring over that stretch.

Gibbs might not be quite the prospect that Bijan Robinson is, but he’s electric in open space, and the Lions’ willingness to spend the 12th overall pick in the draft on him suggests he will have a substantial role right away.

Walker was dynamite as a rookie averaging 82.2 rushing yards per game upon seizing the lead-RB role in Week 6. But it’s concerning that the Seahawks spent a second-round draft pick on one of the better RB prospects in this year’s rookie class, Zach Charbonnet.

Sanders ran for a career-high 1,269 yards and 11 TDs with the Eagles last season. Now he’s in Carolina, where the Panthers will probably feature him in their backfield. But Sanders hasn’t been especially helpful as a receiver since catching 50 passes as a rookie, and he’s getting a significant downgrade with his supporting cast.

Mattison is the top RB on the Vikings’ depth chart now that Dalvin Cook is gone, but it’s unclear whether Mattison will play a leading role or merely be the head of a committee.

Conner offers the promise of heavy touch volume. He’s far and away the best RB the Cardinals have on the roster, and he adds value as a pass catcher. But Arizona could have one of the worst offenses in the league this season, and it could be downright putrid until QB Kyler Murray returns from a torn ACL. A weak supporting cast will hinder Conner’s efficiency, so he will need heavy volume to pop. If the Cardinals do use him as a workhorse, that ratchets up the injury risk for a player who’s missed at least two games in each of his six NFL seasons.

Tier 5

After tearing his ACL, LCL and meniscus in the 2021 preseason, Dobbins returned in Week 3 last year, didn’t appear to be 100% healthy and was used sparingly in four games. He then had his knee scoped to break up post-surgical scar tissue, missed six games, but then looked more like his old self upon his return, posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. The Ravens probably aren’t going to be as run-heavy, with Todd Monken replacing Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator.

From Week 10 through the end of the season (including the Chiefs’ three playoff games), Pacheco ran for 830 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. He doesn’t offer much as a pass catcher, but being the lead RB for one of the best offenses in the league could be lucrative in terms of fantasy points.

Javonte Williams tore his ACL and LCL last October and might not be ready for the start of the season. Multi-ligament knee tears typically require a longer recovery than an isolated ACL tear (as we saw with J.K. Dobbins). There have been optimistic reports about Williams’ recovery that probably should be taken with a grain of salt — although it’s a good sign that he wasn’t placed on the PUP list in training camp. The allure here is that lead RBs in Sean Payton’s offenses have been an abundant source of fantasy goodness.

Swift and Penny are newcomers in Philadelphia. Swift is the sexier fantasy option, but are the Eagles a good fit for him? Swift is an effective pass catcher who’s averaged 5.5 targets a game over the past two years. Eagles RBs drew a league-low 61 targets last season. Penny is injury-prone, but he’s effective when healthy, and he’ll be working behind a terrific offensive line.

If Javonte Williams isn’t ready to answer the bell early in the season following last year’s multi-ligament knee injury, Perine could be a valuable fantasy asset in the early weeks of the season.

Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel loves speed, and Achane is a track star with 4.32 speed and exceptional contact balance for a 5-9, 188-pound back.

Tier 6

The good news is that Herbert will no longer be behind David Montgomery on the Bears’ depth chart now that Montgomery has joined the Lions. The bad news is that the Bears might use a three-man committee with Herbert, free-agent addition D’Onta Foreman and rookie Roschon Johnson.

There’s no way Jamaal Williams is getting another 28 carries inside the 5-yard line or scoring 17 rushing touchdowns again, but if Kamara is suspended for an incident in Las Vegas during the 2022 Pro Bowl weekend, Williams could get ample touch volume while Kamara is out.

Tier 7

Allgeier impressed as a rookie last year, but will he still have a fantasy-relevant role, or will he simply be the backup to Bijan Robinson?

Singletary goes from Buffalo to Houston. It’s a downgrade in supporting cast, but Singletary should get touches in a two-man rotation with second-year man Dameon Pierce.

Final thoughts

  • Pass catching is a key driver of RB value. The 12 running backs who finished in the RB1 range last year in half-point PPR scoring averaged 53.3 receptions and 402.8 receiving yards. The only RBs in that group with fewer than 30 receptions were Nick Chubb (27) and Jamaal Williams (12).
  • Due to the high injury rates and overall volatility at the RB position, there will be running backs who go undrafted in your league, then suddenly become valuable assets. Working the waiver wire is crucial, especially if you forgo RBs in the early rounds of your draft.
  • “Handcuffing” is the strategy of rostering the backup to a high-end running back so that you’re protected in case your top RB goes down with an injury. Handcuffing makes the most sense later in the season as the fantasy playoffs draw near. There is an opportunity cost to handcuffing in the draft or early in the season. It gives you some injury insurance, but by using multiple roster spots to lock down a single NFL team’s RB position, you lose the chance to find a higher-ceiling player with one of those roster spots. As Jakob Sanderson of PlayerProfiler puts it: “The structure of a typical fantasy league rewards maximizing ceiling outcomes — not mitigating threats to your floor.”

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