The only thing scarier than drafting an early-round running back these days is taking an older running back in those early rounds. The 2023 fantasy football season was not kind to many second-contract backs.
The 2022 fantasy returns at running back weren't that bad, all things considered. But things got messy in 2023. Ten backs who charted as top-20 backs in 2022 were massive busts this season, and only nine of the top-30 backs in summer ADP graded out as positive picks. It was difficult to find right answers in the backfield this season.
Last year's Top 20 at running back did not, for the most part, carry over. Using half-point PPR scoring, and ignoring Week 18, here is the damage: pic.twitter.com/xPespdtVth
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) January 17, 2024
Last year I graded the top-30 ADP backs as such: 10 in green (the fun picks), 12 in yellow (manageable, if erratic) and eight in red (look out below). The grades weren't as clean this season: another 10 greens, but just six yellows, and a whopping 14 reds. Your top-30 picks in the backfield were almost a 50-50 call to break your heart.
The position continues to get younger these days, as teams prioritize first-contract running backs and offer less loyalty to veteran players. Consider that the biggest seven tumblers from the 2022 top-20 finishers had these ages: 28, 28, 28, 28, 26, 29, 28. And the average age of this year's top 20 was a fairly young 25.15, despite the presence of graybeard Raheem Mostert (31).
Let's pick through the three colors and see what we can find.
Green-Light Running Backs — Hits
Christian McCaffrey was the biggest right answer in the first round, a guaranteed weekly touchdown and a smash season tied to the best offensive infrastructure in the league.
Maybe it felt convenient to say Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery were "this year's D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams" — but that's roughly how it played out. Gibbs was more proactively used than Swift ever was, to be fair, and injuries kept Montgomery from having the touchdown bonanza that Williams did. But both picks justified their 2023 ADP.
Travis Etienne had ordinary efficiency stats, but touchdown equity kept him in our lineups all year.
Joe Mixon somehow kept plugging along, even with a lost season from Joe Burrow. It helped that backup QB Jake Browning was more ready to go than anyone expected.
Breece Hall became the focus of the Jets' offense as the season stumbled along, and it's exciting to think of what he might do if the team has competent quarterback play next year.
James Cook saw a role increase after the coordinator change and was terrific for four weeks, though his fantasy playoff log was disappointing.
Rachaad White was a gigantic right answer, waiting for you around pick 67. The Buccaneers had a very narrow usage tree, and game script was never a problem with White — he played in all packages.
Alvin Kamara had the worst yards per target of his career and the second-worst yards per carry. But if they're going to throw 86 passes in your direction (75 for receptions), the fantasy return will be good. He steps into his age-29 season next year.
It arrived late for James Conner, but at least it arrived. His last five starts graded out this way: RB5, RB11, RB5, RB3, RB1. Like Kamara, Conner enters his age-29 season next year.
Yellow-Light Running Backs — Take the good with the bad
The Falcons never really knew how to best use Bijan Robinson, but he still landed as the RB12 when the smoke cleared. He could easily be a smash next season, mercifully under a new coaching staff.
Saquon Barkley fell from RB6 to RB16, but that sort of thing is within the reasonable range of outcomes. It doesn't win a season for you, but it doesn't lose it. Head coach Brian Daboll did a decent job here despite a slew of injuries.
Derrick Henry is a low-catch pounder who was tied to a losing team, so that RB8 finish is solid. If you wanted to slide him into the greens, I would not complain. Alas, I can't draft Henry proactively next year, his age-30 season.
Najee Harris has no electric qualities, but the Steelers kept him slightly ahead of Jaylen Warren most weeks, and somehow this team stumbled into the playoffs.
Kenneth Walker III wasn't bad given that the Seattle offensive line collapsed as soon as the season started. Still, the Seahawks offense was mostly an avoid.
I toyed with having D'Andre Swift in the green tier, but he carried low touchdown equity (Jalen Hurts dominates there) and like most of the Eagles, Swift was a brick over the final third of the season.
Red-Light Running Backs — The Misses
Austin Ekeler was hurt much of the year and everything around him crumbled in the disappointing Chargers offense. He steps into his age-29 season.
Nick Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2. The NFL is a lot less fun without Nick Chubb.
Maybe Tony Pollard was playing hurt much of the year, but he rarely looked like the explosive player we fell in love with during previous seasons.
Josh Jacobs at least had two strong games after the Vegas coaching change, though injuries ended his season after Week 14.
Rhamondre Stevenson was submarined by the pieces around him. The Patriots might have the worst skill talent in the entire league.
Aaron Jones was hurt for most of his age-29 season, though he turned it on late in the season.
Dameon Pierce was shoved out of the way by Devin Singletary.
The Broncos rarely ran in touchdowns, which meant good things for Russell Wilson and Courtland Sutton, and bad things for Javonte Williams.
J.K. Dobbins was hurt in Week 1, which stinks. Baltimore's offense was a smash, and Dobbins was likely to be a right answer.
Alexander Mattison definitively proved that he is, indeed, a classic JAG (just a guy).
Jonathan Taylor looked like an ADP smash when his contract was sorted out, but injuries and a lack of receptions held him back. I did consider slotting him in the yellows, and I do think Shane Steichen will put Taylor in position to have an outstanding 2024 season.
Miles Sanders was a questionable signing by Carolina, and turned out to be worse than Chuba Hubbard.
Cam Akers was run out of town in LA, paving the way for Kyren Williams.
Dalvin Cook was a curious signing by the Jets, but even the Jets figured out that Cook had little left to give.
Useful Finds Outside RB30 on Draft Day
Isiah Pacheco was drafted as the RB31 but graded as the RB13, one of the few things that clicked in Kansas City. He stayed fairly healthy despite an angry running style.
Brian Robinson is not a special back, but the Commanders upped his pass-game role and he found his way to a sneaky eight touchdowns (four receiving).
Raheem Mostert was the shocker of the year, a 21-touchdown season from a veteran at age 31. Mostert was drafted as the RB40 in the final week of the summer. Good luck guessing his statline next year.
De'Von Achane looked like a league-winner in his explosive early games, but it turned into a bait-and-switch for his disappointing second half.
Tyler Allgeier played more than anyone expected, and while he's not as talented as Bijan Robinson, he's not bad.
Devin Singletary took control of the backfield in what became a shockingly fun Houston offense.
Chuba Hubbard never hits home runs, but he found consistent volume for Carolina, and that's so much of the fantasy puzzle.
Jerome Ford was passable as Cleveland's lead back after Nick Chubb got hurt. The Browns had cluster injuries on the offensive line, so it's remarkable Ford found any running room.
Jaylen Warren never hit the ceiling we dreamed about, but he was a quasi-flex consideration more often than not.
Gus Edwards fell into the end zone 13 times, but because he had modest volume and no passing role, he only finished as the RB19.
Kyren Williams was drafted as the RB68, outside the overall Top 200. Along with McCaffrey and Mostert, he was the critical get of the year at this position. Sean McVay rarely allowed Williams to leave the field, and the Rams offense crushed in the fantasy playoffs.
Too Long, Didn't Read
Although the front-door backs were not great returns this season, I will strongly consider a Hero/Anchor Running Back build next year, with McCaffrey, Hall, Bijan Robinson and maybe even Gibbs making a lot of sense.
The 28-year-old backs concern me (I'll look the other way on CMC), and anyone older than that petrifies me. And as much as it makes me sad, I can't draft Mostert proactively next season.
This probably goes without saying to the experienced fantasy players, but you need to attack the running back position with volume. Stash a bunch on your bench, and make sure you hit the early FAB market aggressively. To be fair, most of your competent opponents are doing the same thing.
Most of the backs worth rostering this year were tied to competitive teams (if not playoff teams) and versatile roles. That's why Henry's RB8 season is so stunning — he doesn't catch the ball, his team stunk, and heck, he was running through the age-29 season. When in doubt, bet on the younger players, bet on the versatile back and tie yourself to better teams.
Note: For end-of-year running back ranks over the last two years, I used half-point PPR scoring and did not include Week 18.