The evolution of the running back position has brought with it frustration for fantasy managers looking for certainty from the position. Gone are the days when Walter Payton averaged just under 335 rushing attempts for his 10 full seasons from 1976-1986 (1982 was a strike-shortened season). RIP, Sweetness, you’re missed in so many ways.
Now, running back duos and trios are more en vogue, which has fantasy managers singing anything but a happy tune. Yet, a vast majority of fantasy football leagues still roster two starting running backs, so someone has to fill those spots. If Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler and Nick Chubb are not available, what is one to do with running backs coming from teams that do not feed one primary runner?
This week it’s time to take a look at five NFL backfields that have very muddy outlooks, with some of them having up to three running backs who are in contention for carries. It was not easy to decipher how the touches will be doled out, but here are some scenarios that could work for each.
Kansas City Chiefs
The backfield of the reigning Super Bowl champions is anything but settled. Then again, the Chiefs won their crown with the backfield in a timeshare between seventh-round 2022 pick Isiah Pacheco and veteran free agent Jerick McKinnon. Pacheco was the banger, with 170 rushing attempts for 830 yards and 5 touchdowns. McKinnon, however, was a fantasy league winner, scoring at least once in Weeks 13 to 17, finishing as the RB2 in that span with an average of 23.2 fantasy points per game. The veteran back was ninth in both receptions (56) and targets (71) among running backs last year and has a stellar reputation as a pass blocker for Patrick Mahomes.Jerick McKinnonRB – KC – #1
Could we get more of the same in 2023? Well, Pacheco is recovering from surgeries to repair a broken hand and torn labrum. The latter can limit upper-body training, which could lead to a slow start early in the season. McKinnon also started slowly last year, with only one game above 10 touches before Week 13. That leaves an opening for another back like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has a 2020 first-round pedigree, but was left off the Super Bowl active roster this past February and has battled injuries every season in the NFL.
Enter undrafted rookie Deneric Prince, who has been a revelation in Chiefs training camp, running with Pacheco-like violence and making plays in the passing game.
As of now, because he is still not at full speed from his surgeries, Pacheco appears to be a bit pricey at RB25 and an overall ADP of 66 overall. McKinnon at RB45 and 126.7 overall is very much worth rostering, if only for the trust that Mahomes has in him in the passing game. Edwards-Helaire is just a dart throw late in drafts, though with upside because of the high-powered KC offense. Prince is someone to keep an eye on, like Pacheco a year ago, but probably not worth drafting unless any of the other runners miss time at the outset of the season.
This is a team that appears to have a big rushing pie to carve up, with 558 total rush attempts in 2022. That was second in the league by a single carry. With a league-low 377 passing attempts, the run-pass ratio will likely get closer to even as Justin Fields enters his second year in the offense, which has added DJ Moore. Khalil Herbert is the only Bear who was on this offense in 2022, and he was operating as the RB2 behind David Montgomery, who had 201 carries for 801 rushing yards and caught 34 of 40 targets for an additional 316 yards.
Does Herbert take a step forward into the lead-back role in 2023? He did have 731 yards on 129 carries last year, with a pair of games in Weeks 3 and 4 where he had rushing lines of 20-157-2 and 19-77-0, respectively, subbing for an injured Montgomery. With free agent signee D’Onta Foreman and rookie Roschon Johnson joining the fold, it’s more likely that this will be a committee.
The then-Panther Foreman was RB23 from Week 7 forward — after Christian McCaffrey was traded — rushing for 877 yards over the final 11 games. One concern is his pass blocking, which was graded last in the league at 14.8 by PFF. With an emphasis on protecting Fields, that could make Foreman’s time on the field limited on passing downs.
Johnson came out of Texas with “dogged blocking chops, both in pass protection and as a lead blocker in ‘21’ personnel,” according to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler in The Beast.
Red-zone work figures to be split between the bigger backs Foreman (235 lbs) and Johnson (225 lbs), as Herbert gained just 7 yards on 8 carries inside the 5-yard line last year. Don’t be surprised if the rookie Johnson gets more of the important touches in the back half of the year when the weather turns bitter cold.
With Fields such a factor in the running game fantasy managers can probably expect very little receiving work from any of these running backs. Herbert is highest in Yahoo ADP at RB35 and 102.9 overall, with Foreman at RB44 and 128.9 right behind. Johnson is a bargain at RB62 and 130.7 and needs to be stashed because his fresh legs, sturdy build and willingness to block may keep him on the field more on passing downs and in the red zone.
Miami had head coach Mike McDaniel come to South Beach from the 49ers with a reputation for creating an effective and bruising running game. The 2022 Dolphins ended up as one of the most pass-happy teams, rushing the ball just 390 times as a team. That was 31st in the league.
Returning are Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert, both of whom played for McDaniel in San Francisco, with rookie Devon Achane joining the mix as a third-round pick with 4.32 speed in the 40.
Sharing the ball among running backs has been a staple of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, as no running back has reached 1,000 yards since his tenure there began in 2017, with McDaniel having a big part in developing those game plans. That doesn’t figure to change this season. Neither will the offensive emphasis on speed, with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle catching passes. Among the veterans, Mostert is faster and more of a threat in the passing game, as the 31-year-old caught 31 passes for 202 yards and three scores on top of his rushing line of 181-891-3. Both Mostert and Wilson drew three rushing attempts inside the five after Wilson was traded to Miami in Week 9.
Achane is the wild card. At 5-8, 188 lbs, he does not project to receive a big workload. That won’t matter, as McDaniel will design plays to utilize the rookie’s breakaway speed — he caught 36 balls for 196 yards on top of 1,102 rushing yards last year at Texas A&M. Achane should see 10-12 total touches weekly, a good number of those being targets in space to give him room to use his extreme speed. Unless he scores from distance, don’t expect Achane to get much usage in the red zone. That again should be shared between Mostert and Wilson, as will the heavy lifting among the rushing attempts.
Even with a shared workload, Wilson at RB46 and Mostert at RB50 could be bargains around the 11th round where their current ADP has them residing. Both will have spike weeks, it just will be hard to predict when those will happen. And since both have injury histories, the possibility of a larger workload is there for either one. Achane at RB53 and an overall rank of 150 is also priced low, most likely for workload and size concerns.
This group appears to be down to two main running backs in James Cook and Damien Harris, with Latavius Murray the 33-year-old veteran backing up in case of injury. Cook is more multi-talented, seeing 19 of his 32 targets in the final six games of his season. As a team, the Bills’ running backs drew 112 targets, tied for 13th in the NFL. That number was 16 more than the previous year.
Cook is a very dynamic player, but he’s slight at 5-11 and 190 lbs. He has yet to carry the ball more than 14 times in a game, and at his size, it’s not as if he’s suddenly going to be a banger inside the tackles. That will likely be for the 213-pound Harris, who in 2021 was tied for fourth with 15 rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line. He converted eight for touchdowns. Harris is not a threat in the passing game, as he has yet to draw more than 23 targets in a season. He’s also missed a combined 14 games the past three seasons, after basically redshirting his rookie year.
It stands to reason that Cook will see a good chunk of the 52 targets that Devin Singletary (now on the Texans) left behind. Nyheim Hines is out for the season, so there really is no other runner who is close to being able to see looks from Allen in the passing game. That could make Cook quite valuable in PPR leagues, and he’s going off as the RB37 on Yahoo, with a rank of 93. I prefer that value to Harris’ RB32 and rank of 82.
With the acquisitions of D’Andre Swift (trade) and Rashaad Penny (free agency), the Eagles have remade a backfield that was spearheaded by Miles Sanders, who had 1,269 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season. With quarterback Jalen Hurts rushing 165 times for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns, he was, for lack of a better term, the RB2 on the team. Now Philly has a pair of running backs to lead the rushing attack and possibly lessen the rushing workload on Hurts.
Swift was 10th in the league among running backs last year with 70 receptions, which easily outdid the 61 team targets that Philadelphia accumulated. The Georgia product does not look like a good bet to reach those target heights from last year in Detroit, and at the ADP of RB29 and the Yahoo consensus rank of 78, the draft price is pretty high. Penny is a slot ahead among running backs at RB28 and rank of 75 and appears to be over the broken tibia that knocked him out last year. They’ll be running behind the top offensive line in the league, according to PFF.
Kenneth Gainwell is a late-round stash. Keep in mind Gainwell’s usage during the playoffs, as he saw 13, 16 and 11 touches in the most important games for the Eagles. With his being RB43 (an ADP of 131.5), Gainwell is a good flier pick in the 11th round.