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3 Running Backs Most Likely to Become RB1s (2023 Fantasy Football)

3 Running Backs Most Likely to Become RB1s (2023 Fantasy Football)

In this age of “Piss Bros” and “Zero RB Truthers,” the RB position has fallen out of favor and down draft boards. However, there is still plenty of value in identifying RBs most likely to break out and far exceed expectations, delivering a higher expected value to your fantasy team. Below we’ll break down what it takes to become an RB1, and we’ll identify a few players currently outside the top 12 in ADP that have the best shot at reaching that tier in 2023.

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Identifying RB1s (2023 Fantasy Football)

To identify these breakout RB1s, we need a dataset. I compiled the RB1s by point per reception (PPR) and points per game (PPG) with a minimum of eight games played between 2013 and 2022, giving us a 10-year sample of 120 RBs. Then, I collected key stats for each one and created summary stats to identify trends. A table of these summary stats can be found below.

Stat 95th Percentile Average 5th Percentile
FPG 25.2 18.3 14.5
Yr in League 8.0 4.1 1
TS% in Season 21.41% 13.51% 6.99%
Team PPG Rank 1.0 12.9 28.0
Prior Rank/ADP Delta -10.8 16.7 50.4

Similarly to my article on identifying WR1s, the Year in League data summary can be understood better graphically.

However, this data is slightly misleading. A trend emerges if we break this graph into two buckets, 2013-2017 and 2018-2022.

Running Backs have significantly worse production in years seven and later over the last five years compared to the prior five years. In 2013-2017, 26.7% of all RB1 seasons came from a running back who was in their seventh season in the NFL or later. However, in 2018-2022, just 3.3% of RB1s were in their seventh season or later.

This massive discrepancy can provide insight into which running backs we want to target as potential breakouts. It also tells us who we should be wary of. Here are just a few names of notable RBs who will be playing in their seventh season or later in 2023: Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Aaron Jones and James Conner.

Next, we see that RB1s have historically been good at both running and receiving, as evidenced by a sample average of a 13.5% target share in their RB1 season. Even the fifth percentile of our data set posted nearly a 7% target share, which depending on the team, is somewhere around 35-45 targets. This suggests eliminating running backs with little to no projectable pass game work. There have been outliers with low pass volume, but they tend to make up for it with large rushing TD totals (think Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, etc).

Unsurprisingly, we also see that the average team PPG rank for an RB1 is 12.8. In other words, RB1s are playing on good teams. I was actually expecting this average to be a little higher, maybe in the 10 range. Hence, the data isn't necessarily telling us to hyper-focus on running backs who play on good offenses, but it certainly is a marker that has helped propel RBs to an RB1 status over the last decade.

The last metric to look at is the Prior Rank/average draft position (ADP) Delta. What this metric says is was the player being drafted in the year they broke out higher or lower than their finish in the previous season. The only number that matters for this stat is the average, which is 16.7. We can interpret that as the average RB1 is being drafted 16.7 positional spots higher than their finish in the previous season.

In simpler terms, RB1s are often already identified by the market as players who are likely to outperform their previous season. This is notable because if the market isn't already predicting an increase in a player's performance, it's not likely that they'll do so.

Now that I've laid out some historical markers for RB1s, I'll lay out the case for ... RBs who are being drafted outside of the top 12 RBs by ADP, who I think have the best shot at finishing as an RB1 in 2023.

Jahmyr Gibbs (RB - DET), RB17

In the last five years, there haven't been many rookie RB1s. However, Gibbs is not your average rookie RB. Gibbs got Day 1 draft capital from the NFL's No. 5 scoring offensive from a season ago. During my 10-year sample, there were 12 RBs selected in the first round. Of those 12, five finished as an RB1 in their rookie campaign, a rate of 41.7%.

Better yet, six of those twelve were drafted in the top 16 picks, and of those, four finished as an RB1 as a rookie, a rate of 66.7%. The Lions used the 12th overall pick on Gibbs. Also, Gibbs was an excellent pass catcher in college, posting a 93rd-percentile college target share. History is on Gibbs' side, and so am I.

Alexander Mattison (RB - MIN), RB23

I was originally out on Mattison, but this research changed my mind. Mattison is in his fifth season, much before we see the decline of RBs, and he plays on the NFL's No. 8 scoring offense. His target share from a season ago wasn't great, but that's because he was backing up Dalvin Cook, who received an 8.9% target share. If Mattison can receive similar pass volume and receive the bulk of the RB carries (and both seem quite likely), he possesses a clear path to finishing as an RB1.

James Cook (RB - BUF), RB31

My opinion of James Cook has shifted rapidly over the last 18 months. I thought his pre-draft profile had some holes, particularly his size and lack of domination in college. However, the Bills used a second-round pick on him, and he proceeded to have a respectable rookie season, although nothing special, as he was primarily the backup to Damien Harris.

Still, Cook finished with a 6% target share, and now Harris is gone. Bills OC Ken Dorsey has spoken quite highly of him, saying Cook has the versatility to be an every-down back. If James Cook can get both the bulk of rushes and targets out of the backfield on the NFL's No. 2 scoring offense from a season ago, this is the perfect recipe to cook up a breakout RB1 season.

Horoable Mentions: Rachaad White, D'Andre Swift, Zach Charbonnet

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