The Yahoo fantasy football crew is breaking down every position to get drafters confident to tackle each and every one of them when they’re on the clock. Here, our very own Andy Behrens examines the running back landscape.
2023 Fantasy Football Position Previews: QB | RB | WR | TE
Travis Etienne Jr.
Last year, like pretty much every other year in the history of fantasy football, a few of our game’s most valuable, championship-tilting running backs were actually waiver wire pickups. Without fail, at least one undrafted, under-hyped back produces a supernova finish each season.
Maybe you first learned this lesson from Ronald Moore in 1993 or Mike Anderson in 2000 or Jerome Harrison in 2009. Or perhaps it was Damien Williams in 2018. Or Rashaad Penny in 2021. Regardless, you surely understood the truth of it before Jerick McKinnon and Cam Akers surged in the second half of 2022. Plenty of fantasy managers won titles last season starting both of those backs down the stretch, having originally drafted neither of them.
One of the primary reasons Zero RB is an effective method of roster construction is that it recognizes the fact that this position, more than any other, can be successfully addressed in-season. It’s entirely possible to ignore running backs through the first six or seven rounds of a draft, yet still enter the money weeks with one of the better backfields in your league. Zero RB might yield an imbalanced roster in September (at least ostensibly), but an attentive manager can often resolve that issue before the calendar flips.
However, to be clear, we aren’t exactly the most hardcore Zero RB zealots around here. We’ve placed six running backs inside the overall Yahoo consensus top-13 players, so no one’s telling you to avoid the position at whatever spot you’re comfortable drafting it. When you hit on an early-round back, it’s like a free pass to the fantasy playoffs. Scoring in our game is still driven by yards and points, after all. If you scan the list of the top individual scrimmage yardage seasons in NFL history, you won’t find a non-running back until Cooper Kupp at No. 80. The all-time single-season touchdown leaderboard is similarly dominated by RBs.
The NFL itself might not value running backs the way it used to, but the most productive players at this spot have always been fantasy difference-makers. Let’s just please remember that your fantasy backfield should be considered a work in progress from August through January.
Running backs to target on draft day
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Jones has been an absolute screaming value all summer. He’s basically never one of the first dozen backs selected in any draft, yet he’s finished among the RB1s in every season since 2018. Jones delivered 1,516 total yards last year while catching 59 balls and reaching the end zone seven times. He also averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 3.2 yards after contact per attempt.
Simply put, Jones is objectively great at football and he remains atop the backfield hierarchy in Green Bay. He’s a gift outside the top three rounds. You don’t have to be all-in on Jordan Love to appreciate the high floor and ceiling offered by Jones, one of the best and most versatile backs of this era.
James Cook, Buffalo Bills
If you’ve somehow missed this summer’s Cook hype, just please know it’s been breathless and relentless. He ran exclusively with the Bills starters in the team’s preseason opener, with impressive results.
He isn’t going to be an every-snap RB in all likelihood, because such creatures have nearly vanished from the Earth — only four players in the league carried more than 275 times last season. But it seems abundantly clear at this point that Cook is the head of a backfield committee for Buffalo, with Damien Harris (currently dinged) and Latavius Murray well behind him.
As a rookie, Cook played his best football in the season’s second half, averaging over 6.0 YPC in Weeks 11-18. If the Bills are actually serious about dialing down their quarterback’s rush attempts, Cook should thrive as both a receiving threat and perhaps as a goal-to-go ball-carrier. His current Yahoo ADP in the late 80s.
Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville Jaguars
Travis Etienne Jr. is the clear and unrivaled top back in Jacksonville, but Bigsby is a near-perfect complement. The third-round rookie from Auburn has delivered daily camp highlights…
…and we shouldn’t sleep on his receiving ability. Bigsby can play. He’s a good bet to enter the season with a rotational role and short-yardage responsibilities for the Jaguars, which gives him a path to standalone value. If Etienne ever misses time, Bigsby is going to be a priority waiver target. He’s currently only being drafted in 6% of Yahoo leagues.
Running backs to fade at ADP
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (27.6 ADP)
Anyone who rostered Harris last season certainly wasn’t complaining in the second half of the season, as he averaged 18.2 carries per game and scored seven touchdowns in his final nine games. Those were some quality weeks for our purposes, no question. But it’s also worth noting that his snap percentage slipped into the 60s in the closing weeks while Jaylen Warren’s playing time was on the rise. There’s no reason to think something like a 60/40 split won’t continue in 2023, given the success the Steelers enjoyed down the stretch and the relative efficiency of the two runners.
We’re not telling you to avoid Harris at any cost, but you need to recognize that Warren is something more than a pure backup. You certainly can’t draft Harris expecting 350-plus touches and a 90% snap share.
Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots (26.4 ADP)
Yeah, OK, this one could definitely look like a terrible call in a few months. Stevenson is an excellent player coming off an incredibly efficient season in which he caught 69 passes and finished with 1,461 total yards. He was a yards-after-contact monster, too, averaging 3.8 per attempt. Again: Terrific back.
By Stevenson’s own admission, however, he was on fumes late in the 2022 season. New England had practically been screaming at us in recent weeks that they were interested in adding one of the veteran free agent backs. On Monday, they agreed to terms with Ezekiel Elliott, detonating your workload projection for Stevenson, whatever it was. He’s still a perfectly respectable RB2, but his previous ADP (26.4) can’t hold. Zeke is surely headed for 8-12 weekly touches with goal-line work included.
D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles (78.9 ADP)
Philadelphia’s backfield should really be viewed as a murky three-headed committee, yet early drafters have made Swift the clear favorite. He’s going roughly 16 picks ahead of Rashaad Penny in a typical Yahoo draft and about 50 picks ahead of Kenneth Gainwell, who might very well be this team’s No. 1 back. There’s a certain sort of Swift truther who can’t let the dream go, but he can’t reasonably be drafted as a fantasy starter in 10-team leagues.