Fantasy Football 2023 Breakouts: Running backs ready to make the leap

We asked nine analysts to reveal a breakout running back candidate to help you have an idea of players ready to exceed expectations this fantasy football season.

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, and worked only with the first-team offense again in limited action on Saturday against the Steelers.

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 is in the early 80s. — Andy Behrens

Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans

If you love football, you have to be a huge fan of how Dameon Pierce plays. He’s a violent runner who takes no prisoners. Pierce averaged 3.21 yards after contact per attempt as a rookie, putting him in the same territory as fantasy heroes like Josh Jacobs (3.23) and Derrick Henry (3.24), per Fantasy Points Data. His 0.22 missed tackles forced per carry ranked eighth among backs with 200-plus rushes.

So we know Pierce is a good runner but there’s more to it than that. We got answers to one variable in the preseason. It’s clear Pierce is going to be a near-every down back for the Texans and Devin Singletary is a change-of-pace option. The second variable is the overall ecosystem. It’ll be tough for the Texans to be as bad as they’ve been the last two years. I like C.J. Stroud as a pro-ready passer and find the idea of Bobby Slowik installing an offense similar to what we saw in the early Shanahan 49ers days interesting. Everything is coming up roses for Pierce. He’s simply going too late in drafts with a Yahoo ADP of 48.3. — Matt Harmon

[2023 Fantasy Football Breakout Candidates: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions

Gibbs has major draft capital after being selected 12th overall. He'll get to play for a surging Lions offense that helped D’Andre Swift be a top-20 fantasy back last season despite playing just 41% of the snaps. Gibbs is a legit prospect who commanded targets as an 18-year-old and now gets to play indoors on an offense that averaged an NFL-high 33+ points per game at home last season.

Yet, it's an offense missing alternative weapons outside of Amon-Ra St. Brown.

While Gibbs may lose some goal-line touchdowns, Jamaal Williams is gone, and David Montgomery has been the least efficient back in the league over the last four years and may not be ideally suited for the role. Gibbs will see enough opportunities (including a ton of targets) in a Detroit offense that produced the most expected fantasy points from its backfield last season.

There’s a real chance Gibbs is a first-round fantasy pick next season. — Dalton Del Don

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

It took a while for the Rams to settle on Akers last year, but the goodwill was rewarded in the final third of the season. Akers racked up 512 rushing yards (4.9 per carry) and six touchdowns over his final six starts, making him the RB3 over that cumulative period. The Los Angeles backfield chart is thin after Akers, and yet the market hasn't bought into him completely — he's currently the RB21 in Yahoo drafts. I'm not hung up on labels — you can call Akers a breakout player, a value pick, an ADP beater, a profit selection. Just appreciate how juicy this opportunity is. — Scott Pianowski

Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears

Herbert is poised to break out now that the David Montgomery era is officially over in Chicago. Yes, the Bears brought in D’Onta Foreman and spent a fourth-round pick on Roschon Johnson in the 2023 NFL Draft, but Herbert possesses the most upside as the featured back. Playing alongside Justin Fields, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry (tops among all RBs) and proved to be one of the most elusive and efficient RBs last season.

He plays in a run-first offense and is already showing glimpses of his potential as a three-down back, ripping off a 56-yard catch and run for the score in his first preseason game. Montgomery’s departure frees up 201 carries, and as the RB1 in Chicago, that kind of volume will have him far exceed his value relative to his ADP (100.8). Shout out to my Hokies because this kid is going to ball. — Dan Titus

Alexander Mattison, RB, Minnesota Vikings

We don’t need to beat you over the head with it, folks. Mattison is set to break out, even though he’s coming off a 3.8-yards-per-carry season. In fact, Mattison was generally less efficient than former teammate Dalvin Cook in 2022 across the board, from yards per attempt to yards after contact per carry and yards per route run. However, there’s no denying the former third-rounder has absolutely made the most of his limited opportunities as the team’s lead back.

In Mattison’s six career games played without Cook, he averaged a full 25 opportunities (targets and rush attempts) for 115.5 scrimmage yards and just under a touchdown per game. That translated to over 20 fantasy points per game in full-PPR scoring formats.

Mattison now has the workhorse role to himself on 2022’s seventh-highest-scoring NFL offense. Buy. — Kate Magdziuk

Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

White is going in a range of ADP (83.1) with wide receivers Mike Williams, Mike Evans and Michael Pittman Jr. Yet he can outperform them as one of the final running backs chosen who can see an RB1 workload. White saw 129 carries and caught 50 of 57 targets, with Leonard Fournette leaving Tampa having compiled 262 touches last year. That’s a big pie available for White, and the Bucs only added undrafted free agent rookie Sean Tucker to a running back room that also includes Chase Edmonds and Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, White is built for a big workload and has shown good work in the passing game. New quarterback Baker Mayfield did target the running backs 18 times in five games, which would need to increase for White to become more of a factor. The workload is there for the taking for White to be one of the breakout stars of 2023. — Jorge Martin

David Montgomery, Detroit Lions

David Montgomery projects to — at the very least — fill the Jamaal Williams role in Detroit, a role that saw the former Lions goal-line weapon score an astounding 14 touchdowns from within the opponents’ five-yard line last season, on his way to 17 rushing touchdowns in total. Though we can figure on some natural touchdown regression in that category — particularly when we factor in the fact that Amon-Ra St. Brown was tackled inside the five-yard line seven times — the early-down role behind one of the league’s best offensive lines will still produce plenty of opportunities for scores.

The Lions spent the 12th-overall selection on Jahmyr Gibbs during the NFL Draft, so they will want to use him extensively, but there’s no reason to believe both members of this backfield cannot co-exist. Gibbs’ inclusion in the backfield puts a hard cap on Montgomery’s target share, but the former Bears back had target totals of 51 and 40 over the last two seasons on offenses that were historically averse to passing the ball. You don’t have to squint too hard to see Montgomery returning top-20 value as an eighth-round pick (75.8 ADP), even if Austin Ekeler is skeptical both Lions backs can provide that range of fantasy value. — 4for4's Justin Edwards, who has more breakout RB candidates.

Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers

My colleagues scooped up some of the best breakout picks, so I’m going out on a limb by predicting a breakout season for someone who is going undrafted in many Yahoo leagues, but is among the most valuable backups in fantasy. Najee Harris isn’t very good. Sure, he’s a workhorse, but he’s the bad kind of workhorse — the kind that soaks up plenty of touches and doesn’t do much with them (3.8 yards per carry or 5.6 yards per catch in 2022).

Warren was much more efficient than Harris last season (4.9 yards per carry, 7.6 yards per catch) and announced he is ready for a bigger role this season when he torched the Bills for a 62-yard TD last weekend. The second-year pro’s speed could spark the Steelers offense if he’s given eight-10 carries and four-five targets per game. Warren will slowly slide the RB split in his direction until he becomes a flex option. — Fred Zinkie