Navigating the Unprecedented Fantasy RB Landscape in 2023

By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport

There was a time not that long ago when running backs were the unquestioned kings of fantasy football. The first round was dominated by the position. If you didn't have a strong stable of running backs, you were cooked-simple as that.

But the times have changed. For the first time in recent memory, more wide receivers are being drafted on average in Round 1 per the ADP data than running backs. There are more than a few fantasy drafters who are punting on running backs altogether for the first several rounds of drafts.

There's a reason for that. The running back landscape is more clouded and treacherous than ever before. The number of true three-down "workhorse" running backs continues to shrink. Last year's leading rusher and the No. 1 running back in fantasy two years ago haven't even reported to their respective teams due to contract disputes. A number of prominent fantasy backs are returning from injury. Mired in committee backfields. Or both.

However, while there may be more uncertainty and risk than ever before at running back, it remains a position that's vitally important to fantasy success. So, we're going to help you navigate the quagmire that is the running back landscape in 2023-by breaking down the different tiers of backs for the season to come. Which you can trust. Which you cannot.

And which backs fall somewhere in-between.

ADP Data Courtesy of Fantasy Pros

The Reliable RB1

1. Christian McCaffrey, SF (2)
2. Austin Ekeler, LAC (4)
3. Saquon Barkley, NYG (8)
4. Bijan Robinson, ATL (9)
5. Nick Chubb, CLE (13)

This is it. This is the list of the five running backs this analyst has a reasonable amount of confidence in returning actual RB1 numbers in 2023. Yes, there will be more who do-that's how numbers work. But all of these backs have both a track record of production and/or situations that would indicate they will see the touches needed to return top-10 fantasy numbers in 2023. The only one without that track record (Robinson) was a top-10 pick by a Falcons team that led the league in rushing attempts in 2022.

It may smack of an old-school philosophy, but targeting one of these five backs on draft day is a good idea-especially if you're not a big fan of risk at the running back position.

TARGET: Nick Chubb, CLE: Chubb set career highs last year in both rush attempts (302) and rushing yards (1,525), and with Kareem Hunt gone he's a good bet to see a sizable uptick in passing-game usage. If Chubb eclipses 45 receptions this year and maintains his robust per-carry production, he could finish as fantasy's No. 1 running back in 2023.


The Risky RB1

6. Derrick Henry, TEN (16)
7. Tony Pollard, DAL (17)
8. Josh Jacobs, LV (20)
9. Jonathan Taylor, IND (21)
10. Najee Harris, PIT (27)
11. Travis Etienne, JAX (30)
12. Rhamondre Stevenson, NE (31)

Frankly, this group of running backs mostly scares the heck out of me. Derrick Henry of the Titans and Josh Jacobs of the Raiders both surpassed 370 touches last year, which is bad juju for running backs. Jacobs has yet to sign his franchise tender and report to the team. Jonathan Taylor of the Colts has asked to be traded. Najee Harris of the Steelers has thrived on volume the past two years, but his per-carry numbers have been mediocre. Rhamondre Stevenson of the Patriots and Travis Etienne of the Jaguars both have new competition for touches in 2023.

Will some of the backs in this bunch shake off their doubts and crack the top-10 at the position. Yes. But there are also going to be backs in this group who will disappoint fantasy managers in a big way-and overcoming busts this early in the draft can be hard to do. Anchoring your RB corps with one of these backs could pay off-or blow up in your face.

TARGET: Rhamondre Stevenson, NE: Since the Patriots signed Ezekiel Elliott. Stevenson's ADP has dipped due to fears that his featured back role could be in jeopardy. But Elliott is more a compliment than a committee back at this point in his career, and Stevenson's 69 receptions last year demonstrate how dangerous he can be in the passing game.


Value…and Risk

13. Joe Mixon, CIN (33)
14. Jahmyr Gibbs, DET (36)
15. Aaron Jones, GB (39)
16. Breece Hall, NYJ (40)
17. Kenneth Walker, SEA (45)
18. Dameon Pierce, HOU (47)
19. Miles Sanders, CAR (50)

This is where many fantasy analysts will tell you that things start getting dicey in the backfield-because we are entering the "RB Dead Zone"-an area of the draft where running back bust rates and wide receiver bust rates start to widen. And to be clear, there's risk involved with quite a few of these backs-especially if you have yet to draft one.

Joe Mixon of the Bengals could be looking at a personal conduct suspension after offseason menacing charges. Jahmyr Gibbs of the Lions is a preseason hype darling, but he has to share the Detroit backfield with David Montgomery. Breece Hall of the Jets is rehabbing an ACL tear and now has to contend with Dalvin Cook. Kenneth Walker of the Seahawks has to similarly split the Seattle backfield with rookie Zach Charbonnet.

There are potential values-even in the "Dead Zone." But we're entering the portion of the draft where managers need to tread lightly and choose wisely.

TARGET: Aaron Jones, GB: There may not be a more undervalued running back in fantasy football this year than Jones, who has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes in PPR formats and yet is barely being drafted inside the top 15 because…Jordan Love? If anything, the 2023 Packers will lean that much more heavily on the run this year. Jones is a solid RB2 target-and an even better one if you attack wide receiver and/or tight end early.


Lower-End RB2

20. Alvin Kamara, NO (58)
21. Cam Akers, LAR (61)
22. JK Dobbins, BAL (62)
23. Alexander Mattison, MIN (63)
24. James Conner, AZ (64)
25. Dalvin Cook, NYJ (65)
26. Rachaad White, TBB (66)

By the time you reach this point in the draft, either you had better have two running backs rostered or be comfortable rolling with a "Zero RB" or "Hero RB" draft strategy-which is fine. But by the time this group of running backs is exhausted, so are the guys who are expected to be the unquestioned lead backs for their teams. This is where the 250-300 touch running backs run out.

And again, there are legitimate concerns with every back here. Alvin Kamara of the Saints will miss the first three games of the season on suspension. JK Dobbins of the Ravens has missed most of the past two years and is unhappy about his contract. Alexander Mattison has never been a featured back. Dalvin Cook of the Jets is the second New York back being selected inside the top 25 at the position.

With all that said, roster the right three backs by the time this bunch runs out and you can build an old-school edge. Say what you will about the "Dead Zone"-it's still easier to find viable wide receivers in Round 6 or Round 7 than running backs. Always has been. Always will be.
TARGET: Cam Akers, LAR: Halfway through the 2022 season, Akers looked like he might be out of a job. But Akers topped 100 rushing yards in each of his last three games last year and was seventh among running backs in PPR points from Week 12 on last year. He also faces very little competition for touches in the Rams backfield this season.


Muddied Waters

27. D'Andre Swift, PHI (69)
28. Javonte Williams, DEN (70)
29. Isiah Pacheco, KC (74)
30. James Cook, BUF (78)
31. David Montgomery, DET (83)
32. A.J. Dillon, GB (88)
33. Khalil Herbert, CHI (95)
34. Jamaal Williams, NO (99)
35. Brain Robinson, WAS (105)

Well, here we are-this group of running backs runs right through the "Dead Zone" and into the Twilight Zone. This isn't to say viable fantasy starters can't be found this late-"Zero RB" drafters depend on it. But there are as many questions as answers with this group of running backs.

There's one running back in this group (Javonte Williams of the Broncos) who is ostensibly the clear lead back for his team-and he's returning from multiple ligament tears in his knee. D'Andre Swift of the Eagles has generated more than a little buzz since moving to Philly, but his role in the offense isn't as clear-cut as his durability issues. Shared backfields. Injury concerns. Combinations of the two. If you're looking for a weekly starter among this group, you're playing fantasy roulette.

TARGET: James Cook, BUF: It's not all sunshine and puppies with Cook. Between Josh Allen and Damien Harris, Cook could be hard-pressed to see many looks near the goal line for the Bills. But Cook is a dynamic young talent and excellent receiver out of the backfield who averaged 5.7 yards per carry last year and tallied 132 yards after the catch on 21 receptions. There's breakout potential here. And that's hard to find in Round 7.


Crapshoot City

36. Antonio Gibson, WAS (107)
37. Samaje Perine, DEN (109)
38. Zach Charbonnet, SEA (112)
39. Jerick McKinnon, KC (120)
40. De'Von Achane, MIA (127)
41. Rashaad Penny, PHI (128)
42. Ezekiel Elliott, NE (133)
43. Elijah Mitchell, SF (139)
44. Raheem Mostert, MIA (147)
45. Jeff Wilson, MIA (148)

There's no sugar-coating things once you're this far into the running back landscape-at this point the reality is you're tossing darts. Sure, an argument can be made for some of the darts, even all of them-whether it's Samaje Perine's appeal in Denver if Javonte Williams' knee is an issue of the explosiveness that Miami's De'Von Achane could bring as a pass-catching back in Miami. This group also features fantasy's top "handcuff" back in San Francisco's Elijah Mitchell.

Frankly (and this analyst knows it's a strategy regarded as antiquated by many in the fantasy community), the past few groups of backs are why I still tend to attack that position early. It won't hold, but until recently Denver Broncos wideout Courtland Sutton had an ADP outside the top 100. Viable starting quarterbacks are available in the ninth and 10th rounds. Viable running backs? Not so much.

TARGET: Raheem Mostert, MIA: The Dolphins backfield is crowded. And the team reportedly pursued Dalvin Cook and have also reportedly made an offer for Jonathan Taylor. But right now, Mostert is the lead back for a high-octane offense who topped 1,000 total yards. He also happens to be (even at 31) one of the fastest running backs in the league.

In this analyst's opinion, the most successful path to navigating the new landscape at running back is the same as the old one. Be aggressive. Draft a pair of starters who will get the touches that equate to fantasy production before the bust rates relative to wideouts widen. If you want to flesh out the bench with a dice-roll or two, fine. But lock those relatively dependable starters in.

If that makes me a dinosaur, so be it.

My tiny little T-Rex arms can still lift a trophy at season's end.

Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers' Association Football Writer of the Year. You can yell at Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.