Dead or Alive. Not the 1980s-era one-hit wonders. More like the fantasy Running Back Dead Zone, which has seen a bit of a change in 2023 because of the influx of pass catchers being drafted in the early rounds.
In each draft from 2020-22, there were 14 running backs selected in the first two rounds. According to current ADP, just 12 running backs are in that range. Why is that?
Blame the improved wide receivers who have entered the NFL in the past four years, and the proliferation of teams utilizing running back committees instead of bell-cows in the mold of Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey. Fantasy managers still rush to hit the draft button on those players, but it’s only partly because of the scarcity. Fantasy managers have grown weary of the attrition rate of running backs and affixed their gaze on the seemingly healthier wide receivers.
This year has dropped even more running backs into the spooky Running Back Dead Zone, which my cousins and I in Familia FFB’s earliest episodes nicknamed La Llorona Zone after the Mexican legend that scared so many kids for decades.
Consider yourself spared a retelling of the origin story, mainly because it still gives me goosebumps.
The Running Back Dead Zone is that range in Rounds 4-7 of drafts where fantasy managers sometimes hold their noses before selecting a running back. They could be coming off injuries. They could be in timeshares. They could be in new roles that could either see an increase in touches … or not. It can be scary, which sometimes leads fantasy managers to avert their eyes. I explored this range further with Ryan Hallam of Spotlight Sports Group here.
From 2019 to 2022, between 12 and 15 running backs were drafted from picks 37 to 84 overall, with mixed results. Many busted, but there were diamonds to be found there like Josh Jacobs going 48th overall last year and delivering 2,053 total yards and 328.3 fantasy points, good for RB3 in PPR scoring. Rhamondre Stevenson (RB7, pick 86) and Tony Pollard (RB8 79) also went in that range.
All helped those who delved into these scary waters. In fact, in this timeframe, between two and four running backs went from the RB Dead Zone — and sometimes even further down draft boards — into the top 12 at the position.
Currently, there are 17 players in the Running Back Dead Zone. Here are explorations of some of the running backs being drafted in this range, and whether they may be worth the investment. The players’ overall ADP is in parenthesis.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 37.3)
Mixon is a curious player, as his overall statistics give him a decent showing as the RB10. His 814 rushing yards were hardly inspiring, but his 60 receptions on 70 targets for 441 yards put him among the league leaders. He had 16 rushing attempts inside the five and converted five of them for scores.
Any overall numbers need the caveat that 211 total yards, five touchdowns and 51.1 fantasy points came in Week 9. That’s 21.2% of his total points in a single game on the season. Out of his 14 games played, Mixon scored less than 13 PPR points in seven of those games.
The Bengals’ Joe Burrow threw 610 passes, good for fifth in the league. Their 399 team rushing attempts were No. 29. The way the Bengals push to pass the ball is more reason to be fired up for Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, than Mixon, who is going ahead of T.J. Hockenson and Burrow on Yahoo ADP.
The recommendation here is to pass on Mixon in favor of the high-end tight end and one of the top passers after the elite big three at the top.
Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions (40.2)
The rookie is in an interesting range with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Amari Cooper going behind him. All three of those players have great track records, while Gibbs is the highly regarded rookie — but still a rookie. Yet, he’s a rookie who was selected 12th overall, and the sight of him being selected, and the draft-room celebration that followed in Lions’ HQ, is one that remains burned in NFL fans’ memories.
I interviewed Fantasy Points’ Brett Whitefield, a well-respected talent evaluator, and he has an intricate ranking system for NFL Draft prospects. Since beginning to chart incoming rookie running backs in 2015, Gibbs ranked fifth, sandwiched between Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley. That’s some heady company.
Gibbs is lauded as an excellent pass-catching back, as he led the entire Alabama team with 44 receptions last year.
The opportunity for Gibbs is great. D’Andre Swift left via trade, but last year he drew 70 targets, 10th in the league. Gibbs should see at least that number of targets, and that number could soar with Jameson Williams sitting out the first six games of the season. Gibbs also has the high draft pedigree, and Alex Caruso of ESPN did a Twitter deep dive of running backs drafted in the top 12 since 2006. The fantasy finishes in that study are proof enough to push Bijan Robinson and Gibbs up draft boards.
Miles Sanders, Carolina Panthers (47.4)
Sanders has drawn just 26 and 34 targets in the past two seasons. This, after he saw 115 combined targets his first two years with the Eagles. Which version of Sanders’ output will be on display with the new-look Panthers and their rookie quarterback, Bryce Young?
This could shape up to be a big year for Sanders because the three-down role is there for the taking in Carolina. Sanders proved he can handle that load too, as he had 259 carries for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Eagles in 2022. Backup Chuba Hubbard is not much of a threat in the passing game, as he saw just 17 targets in 15 games. Young will need a safety valve, which could be Adam Thielen or Hayden Hurst. But if Sanders is in the mix there, on top of the rushing load he’ll likely carry, the RB15 finish he had last year could be his floor.
He’s in a range with J.K. Dobbins and the next back on this list, ahead of Calvin Ridley and Keenan Allen. That’s a tough call, but the recommendation here is to take Sanders because his workload could be very valuable.
Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans (47.4)
Pierce is right in line behind Sanders. Pierce rose out of this range last year and was helping fantasy teams out of the flex or sometimes as an RB2 until he sprained his ankle in Week 14 and missed the remainder of the season. He fell just shy of 1,000 rushing yards (939) and added 30 catches for 165 additional yards. Pierce is a physical runner, and earned 506 yards after contact, which was fifth in the league. Those ahead of him in the dead zone played in three or four more games.
Pierce is going into new OC Bobby Slowik’s version of the Kyle Shanahan offense, which many rave is running back friendly. It also likes to spread the carries around, and the Texans did add Devin Singletary, who compiled 1,099 total yards in Buffalo last year.
Singletary is also much better in pass protection, as he was eighth in the metric according to Pro Football Focus; Pierce was 49th. Unless he improves, that will impact his passing-game work.
Since the ADP is so close between Sanders and Pierce, and Sanders was recommended above, Ridley and Allen are looking very even with Pierce in this range. That said, even with Singletary there, Pierce is going to have the edge in touches because he can grind out the tough yards. I’ll take him as a second running back here.
Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams (53.1)
Akers left a lot of fantasy managers with a good taste in their mouths following his performance late in the season, as he was the RB3 in Weeks 15-17 with 54 carries for 306 yards and four touchdowns. He added 74 receiving yards on six catches to help many win fantasy titles. If managers held onto him, that is.
Akers did miss two games when the Rams acknowledged that he’d asked for a trade, which never came. The sides made up, and Akers was the epitome of a bell-cow back from Week 13 forward. Even with the missed games, Akers took 88.9% of the Rams’ carries inside the five, which was second in the league behind Derrick Henry taking all of the Titans’ carries in that range. Does that continue?
The running back room behind Akers includes rookie Zach Evans and Kyren Williams, who had his own rookie year marred by injury. It’s looking like it could be more of the same for Akers, who is in the final year of his own rookie contract. He’s in front of Dallas Goedert, DeAndre Hopkins and Justin Herbert in ADP. Only Herbert do I consider drafting in front of Akers, as the top-end quarterbacks are running out at this point.
Akers has the makings of a back who could remind fantasy managers of Josh Jacobs in 2022.
Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings (61.3)
Mattison appears to have Dalvin Cook’s role, which included 303 touches, 1,468 total yards and 10 touchdowns. Can the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Boise State product step into those big shoes?
Last year, Mattison had no game with more than 12 touches and had a high of 60 total yards. But Cook did not miss any time in 2022. The previous year, Cook missed four games, and Mattison went over 100 total yards in three of those games and averaged 21.7 fantasy points per game. Will we get that level of production over 17 games?
The 25-year-old has a high of 134 carries and 166 combined touches in his four-year career. That would take a big jump to reach the heights of Cook, and the Vikings project to be more pass-happy with a full season of Hockenson and rookie WR Jordan Addison filling out a receiving corps headed up by the electric Justin Jefferson. Minnesota is also rebuilding its secondary, which could bring on Kirk Cousins-led shootouts.
Darren Waller is behind Mattison at this range, so it could be tough to pass on a tight end with the upside to be the top pass catcher on his team for Mattison.