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3 Must-Have Running Backs to Draft (2024 Fantasy Football)

3 Must-Have Running Backs to Draft (2024 Fantasy Football)

The most desirable fantasy football running backs have three-down skill sets. The following three must-have running backs have the requisite skills to play every down. No one featured has an Underdog Fantasy average draft position (ADP) in the first three rounds. Thus, the three touted running backs are available to everyone, regardless of their draft position. Finally, while the upcoming running backs are touted as must-have selections, that’s not a license to foolishly reach 15 picks ahead of their ADP to pick them. Instead, they are excellent choices at or slightly ahead of their ADP.

2024 Dynasty Fantasy Football Guide

Must-Have Running Backs (2024 Fantasy Football)

James Cook (BUF – RB): 39.0 Underdog Fantasy ADP/RB12

Cook had a breakout sophomore campaign and could be in store for an even better third season. He left meat on the bone in 2023 while enjoying a usage surge after the Bills replaced Ken Dorsey as the offensive coordinator with Joe Brady.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), in nine games with Brady as the offensive coordinator, Cook had 153 rush attempts, 647 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 28 receptions, 249 receiving yards, 1.66 yards per route run (Y/RR), a 2.0-yard average depth of target (aDOT) and three touchdown receptions. The second-year pro was targeted on 23.3% of his routes in that span. Furthermore, Cook had an uncharacteristic six drops in that span and seven during the whole season. He had only two drops in his rookie season and one on 74 targets in his collegiate career.

Circling back to Brady, it was unsurprising he cranked up Cook’s usage. Brady was an offensive assistant on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans in 2017 and 2018. The Saints force-fed Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram the ball on the ground and through the air. When Brady was the passing game coordinator for LSU in 2019, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 214 rush attempts, 1,419 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 16 rushing touchdowns, 64 targets, 55 receptions, 453 receiving yards, 1.07 Y/RR and one receiving touchdown in 15 games.

The Carolina Panthers hired Brady as their offensive coordinator before the 2020 season. Sadly, Christian McCaffrey played only three games that season. Per Pro-Football-Reference, CMC had 19.7 rush attempts per game, 75.0 rushing yards per game, 5.7 receptions per game, 49.7 receiving yards per game and six touchdowns in his healthy contests. Obviously, Cook isn’t as talented as CMC.

Nevertheless, it was encouraging Brady didn’t abandon featuring the running back in Carolina’s offense after CMC was injured. Instead, Mike Davis was used as a workhorse. With an entire offseason to implement his playbook instead of tweaking Dorsey’s on the fly, Brady should have some goodness ready to utilize Cook’s speed and explosiveness on the ground and through the air. Finally, with regression to Cook’s drops, he could build on this season with identical usage in 2024.

2024 NFL Draft Guide

Aaron Jones (GB – RB): 66.5/RB20

Jones will be 29 years old entering the 2024 season, an age when running backs can endure a cliff season. Fortunately, the only blemish on Jones’s 2023 season was a nagging hamstring injury costing him six games in the regular season.

Jones was a monster after overcoming the hamstring injury. In fact, he was PFF’s highest-ranked runner among running backs from Week 15 through the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Jones had 115 rush attempts for 638 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 3.82 yards after contact per attempt (YCO/A), 29 missed tackles forced and three rushing touchdowns during that period. He had over 100 rushing yards in his final five games of the season.

Jones also chipped in receiving production. In that six-game stretch, he was targeted on 20.2% of his 99 routes, securing 15 receptions for 85 receiving yards. The Packers could again look to restructure Jones’s contract, but he should headline their backfield again in 2024. Green Bay’s offense is ascending, and even if they bring in a complement to reduce Jones’s workload, he’s an exciting pick as an RB2 as early as the middle of the fifth round.

Chase Brown (CIN – RB): 113.5/RB32

According to Over The Cap, the Bengals have the fourth-most effective cap space entering 2024. So, they don’t have to cut Joe Mixon. Yet, they can cut him and save $5.75 million while eating only $2.75 million in dead cap. The veteran running back had the second-lowest PFF running grade and yards after contact per attempt (2.51 YCO/A) of his career in 2023.

Meanwhile, Brown flashed game-changing speed after the Bengals enhanced his role down the stretch. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brown had the second-fastest maximum speed in 2023, reaching 22.05 mph on a 54-yard touchdown reception. The speedy touchdown reception was only one eye-catching play in an encouraging finish to Brown’s rookie season.

After touching the ball only five times before Week 13, Brown had 53 touches in his final six games. Brown had PFF’s fifth-highest elusiveness rating among running backs with at least 30 rush attempts from Week 13 through the Conference Championship Round. He toted the rock 42 times for 173 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 3.36 YCO/A and eight missed tackles forced.

Brown was also an impactful receiver. He was targeted 12 times on just 29 routes (41.4%) for 11 receptions, 149 receiving yards, 5.14 Y/RR and one receiving touchdown. Brown wasn’t a downfield threat, owning a -3.2-yard aDOT during those games. Still, the Bengals wisely got the ball in the speedy running back’s hands and let him gash the opposition.

Brown’s ADP is climbing and will skyrocket if Mixon is cut. He’s presently drafted in a reasonable range for a handcuff, but his upside to headline Cincinnati’s backfield isn’t baked in yet.

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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.

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