The running back rules have changed in fantasy football in recent years — the strategy rules, anyway. But it doesn’t have to be stressful. Right answers are harder to find, but we need to make peace with the uncertainty.
Back in the days of the plentiful bell cow, you probably needed two superstar backs to have a strong chance in your league. This led to panic drafting and position hoarding, and the goal was to attack running back at the expense of all other positions. It launched stressful days and sleepless nights.
In today’s game, the bell cow is almost extinct. And we’ve learned and accepted every running back carries significant injury risk. The league itself has started to marginalize the position, paying running backs comparatively less and aging players out of the position earlier than usual. It might not feel like a humane way to approach things at times, but it’s just business.
Projectable volume is your best friend in the middle of the season. When a starting running back gets hurt, the ascending backup probably comes into playable value the following week. This often isn’t true at other positions, where the true talent level of a promoted player is significant. But at running back, anyone getting fed becomes significantly interesting to us.
My preferred running back build is an “Anchor Back” approach, where I have one strong starter to hang my hat on, then I’ll look for values and depth plays later. Some managers will prefer a “Zero RB” build where no early picks are devoted to the backfield. You’ll also see a “Robust RB” build here and there, the idea being that you take two backs with early picks, aim to bully the position. I’ll likely eschew that strategy, as it will block me from my preferred WR ethos: Get receivers who start themselves.
But you know the tagline to all this. Any strategy works if you pick the right players.
Time to give the people what they want. Here are your running back tiers.
The big tickets
$43 Austin Ekeler
$42 Nick Chubb
$40 Bijan Robinson
$40 Tony Pollard
$38 Derrick Henry
$38 Saquon Barkley
$34 Najee Harris
McCaffrey tied to a full season of Kyle Shanahan feels unfair, and the Niners grasp the importance of McCaffrey working outside the numbers regularly, allowing him to be tackled by smaller defenders for part of the day. I realize first-round running back is a boring strategy to many, but I'm glad I have a McCaffrey foundation already in my bank.
Ekeler’s touchdown count might go down with new OC Kellen Moore, given how aggressively Joe Lombardi fed Ekeler around the goal line. But the octane of the Chargers' offense is likely to increase, and it’s a case where the rising tides could lift all boats. I've had Ekeler ranked at the two-slot all summer.
Barkley didn’t get a full bag but the Giants did send him some extra cash, and there’s almost nothing behind him on the depth chart. The volume is all his.
Chubb could be looking at a career-high workload after the Browns let his talented backups walk, and the Browns' offense could spike if Deshaun Watson has a reasonable comeback. Chubb is the favorite to lead the NFL in rushing, and sometimes you can steal him in the second round. Yes, please.
Henry steps into an age-29 season, he’s not used much as a pass catcher and the Titans are projected to have a losing record. I have a few Henry shares in the early portfolio, but he's a yellow-light pick for me, not one of those lovely green-light proactive selections.
Legitimate building blocks
$34 Joe Mixon
$33 Josh Jacobs
$26 Aaron Jones
$22 Cam Akers
$22 Travis Etienne
$21 David Montgomery
$21 Kenneth Walker
$21 J.K. Dobbins
$20 James Conner
Mac Jones has very little upside in the Patriots command chair, but Bill O’Brien should be good for the Patriots offense, and Stevenson has proven he can play on all three downs. Full disclosure, I did dock Stevenson a couple of bucks after the Ezekiel Elliott signing.
The Lions would love Montgomery to step into the Jamaal Williams role, hammering away at the goal line, but Montgomery’s short-yardage efficiency has been a mess for a while. But the Lions' offensive line, a top-five unit on most boards, can make most backs look good. I suspect Detroit recognizes Jahmyr Gibbs needs to be used as a secondary pitch, not the head of this backfield.
Mixon has turned into a boring value pick, an established back on a great offense and someone who has very little backfield competition. Mixon is never going to lead the league in splashy plays, but that's okay. Sometimes the unbuzzy "eat your vegetables" play is the right one.
Akers was the RB3 over his final six starts (six touchdowns, 4.9 YPC), and there’s very little behind him. I’m surprised the market hasn’t pushed him up a round or two.
I need to like the draft price on Conner before I step in, given that the Cardinals probably have the worst roster in the league (are they even trying?) and Conner is one of those backs who lives on the injury report. If you take Conner as a floor pick, that’s reasonable — not every selection has to be a “hair on fire” pick. But make sure your other backs have more of a ceiling.
Talk them up, talk them down
$18 Jonathan Taylor**
$18 Dameon Pierce
$17 Miles Sanders
$16 Jahmyr Gibbs
$15 Dalvin Cook
$15 Isiah Pacheco
$14 Khalil Herbert
$14 Rachaad White
$13 Alvin Kamara
$13 Breece Hall
$12 James Cook
$11 Brian Robinson
$10 D'Andre Swift
$10 Javonte Williams
Kamara’s efficiency has been modest for two years, the Saints don’t steer him into short touchdowns and he’s now in that dangerous age-28 season. Throw in some possible suspension games and I’m unlikely to draft him on any of my teams.
Mattison’s volume looks safe but his true skill level caps his upside. At least the Vikings didn’t add a major threat to his workload, though there are some interesting free agents still unsigned.
According to Pro Football Reference, only Leonard Fournette was less likely to break a tackle last year (among qualified running backs) than Pacheco. Pacheco’s bread was buttered by many favorable-path runs (he averaged 3.2 rushing yards before contact, fourth-best in the league) and the second-best yards per target among qualified backs.
Herbert is the biggest gainer from the first volume of this piece, as he's out in front of the Bears backfield, and it looks like this offense will actually target its backs proactively in the passing game.
White won’t get an easy float from the Tampa Bay offense, but after leaning on the pass during the Tom Brady years, the Bucs will probably have a more conventional run-pass ratio this year. White was ordinary in his rookie year, but there’s nothing exciting behind him.
Pierce had a low yards per target, just 4.2, and that's a concern with the Texans projected to be a losing team again. Fantasy managers need Pierce on the field in all game situations, and that's far from guaranteed.
Given the contract Cook received from the Jets, he deserves to leapfrog Hall in the rankings. And you suspect Cook might have been a hand-picked target from new quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
I wish I had a good piece of advice for the Taylor situation. I do not. — maybe Matt Harmon's take can help you. I'm assuming he's going to miss four games on the PUP, and obviously player and team are not happy. I'm trying to avoid Taylor, as much as I hate avoiding talented players.
Some plausible upside
$9 AJ Dillon
$9 Jeff Wilson
$9 Jamaal Williams
$5 Ezekiel Elliott
$4 Tank Bigsby
$4 Devon Achane
Gainwell was clearly in the Philly circle of trust during the playoff run, and Swift and Penny generally require downtime and maintenance.
Williams could give back a lot of rushing touchdowns and still push into the 9-11-score range, as the likely answer when the Saints get around the goal-line. New Orleans has sleeper potential; Derek Carr is better than average, the defense remains strong and the Saints have one of the easiest schedules for 2023. I love trying to bully the early part of the schedule, and Williams fits that strategy.
If you see Warren having immediate standalone value, push him up a tier. I suspect his case as a fantasy starter would require an injury to Harris. But there's no escaping the fact that Warren looked more explosive than Harris last year.
Elliott has a fair chance to lead the Patriots in rushing touchdowns, but Stevenson is younger and more explosive, and won't lose the starting gig without an injury or an unexpected rash of fumbling.
Achane is probably a slow-developing pick, a player who might not have a big role in September but could be in the circle of trust sometime after Thanksgiving. I'll let my opponents draft him proactively, and I'll be ready for a possible add when the leaves hit the ground.
$3 Zamir White
$3 Deon Jackson
$3 Ty Chandler
$3 Evan Hull
$2 Jerome Ford
$2 D'Onta Foreman
$2 Gus Edwards
$2 Tyjae Spears
$1 Deuce Vaughn
$1 Kareem Hunt
$1 Chase Brown
$1 Eric Gray
$1 Pierre Strong