2023 NFL Free Agency Preview: RBs
We continue our 2023 NFL free agency preview series with a look at the upcoming RB class. It’s no secret that older RBs tend to fade quickly, but this group is chock-full of skilled producers with some effective fantasy seasons ahead of them yet. There’s also an extremely talented group of incoming rookies that’ll eventually muddy the waters of NFL backfields, but free agency comes 1st on the calendar.
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Where these free agent RBs land will have a major impact on the fantasy landscape. Some of these players have long track records of success. Others have only shown flashes. But all of them make up a very good crop of RBs to consider.
Using our dynasty rankings and the latest superflex startup mock data from DLF, we’ve put together our list of the top free agent RBs ahead of the 2023 NFL season.
Saquon Barkley, Giants
- DLF December Startup ADP: RB2, 20.33 overall
- Draft Sharks Dynasty Rank: RB6
As we mentioned up top, the 2023 NFL Draft class boasts several good prospects. The consensus RB1 among them is Texas’ Bijan Robinson, widely regarded as the best prospect at the position to enter the league since… Saquon Barkley.
Barkley’s injury history is no secret. He only appeared in 31 of a possible 65 career games (47.7%) entering 2022 due to various ailments. That said, he’s a tremendously versatile and effective playmaker when healthy.
Since entering the league in 2018, Barkley ranks 5th in PPR points per game (18.15), 7th in rushing yards after contact (2,176) and 4th in targets (332). There’s not a ton to dig into here. Barkley is a household name with Campbell’s Soup commercials and 2 Pro Bowl appearances to his name already.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line: Coming into the 2023 season at age 26 is less than ideal, but Barkley is the crown jewel of this free agent class. Staying with the Giants or landing elsewhere will be unlikely to impact his fantasy outlook. Barkley is an elite, Swiss Army knife RB1 when healthy.
Josh Jacobs, Raiders
- DLF December Startup ADP: RB9, 39.00 overall
- Draft Sharks Dynasty Rank: RB7
Jacobs has been a pretty effective RB since entering the NFL in 2019. Usually finishing as a low-end RB1/mid-RB2 annually, he hadn’t seen a truly massive breakout before this year. Jacobs never had an opportunity share greater than 70% prior to 2022. He ranks 1st in this measure among RBs (84.2%) in 2022 on top of being 3rd in our Dominator Rating metric (min. 50 attempts). This massive leap in usage has translated to Jacobs being the RB3 overall in PPR scoring with an average of 20.1 points per game.
The biggest area where the 2-time Pro Bowler’s fantasy appeal has improved over time is in the receiving game. Jacobs is on track to finish with back-to-back seasons of 60+ targets after combining for 72 targets over his first pair of seasons. Jacobs ranks 21st in PFF receiving grading among RBs with a career-high 11.9% target share. Plainly speaking, Jacobs is essentially doing what fantasy managers would give an arm and a leg to see Browns RB Nick Chubb do from a usage/archetype combo standpoint.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line: Jacobs will enter 2023 at only 25 years old. Light usage in college at Alabama and relatively muted usage over his first 2 seasons bode well for his future fantasy prospects. Still, the optimal buying window has closed on Jacobs. Per DLF, Jacobs’ superflex ADP was RB26 in August. You would’ve had to pull the trigger on Jacobs already in existing leagues to cash in on optimal ROI if you didn’t roster him beforehand.
Managers preparing for startups can feel good about investing in Jacobs, though. An RB9 price tag for our dynasty RB7 is fair value. Jacobs should still have another handful of RB1-level seasons ahead of him. The Raiders declined his 5th-year option ahead of this season, so be prepared for Jacobs to suit up elsewhere. It seems he really wants out of Las Vegas anyway.
Tony Pollard, Cowboys
- DLF December Startup ADP: RB17, 62.33 overall
- Draft Sharks Dynasty Rank: RB12
It was only a matter of time before the aging Ezekiel Elliott ceded work in the Cowboys' offense. After serving as a part-time contributor for the early years of his career, Pollard currently sits as the RB6 overall in PPR scoring with an average of 16.5 points per game. He’s done a good job of capitalizing on a mini-breakout in 2021 as his snaps per game jumped from 25.6 last season to 35.8 in 2022. For context, his teammate Elliott averages 36.4 snaps per game. The Cowboys’ backfield is a true split timeshare.
The difference between Pollard and Elliott is rather stark now as well. The two rank 2nd-best and 22nd-best, respectively, in PFF rushing grade, and it seems this year has shown that Pollard is both figuratively and literally running away with this job. Heading into free agency, this is exactly the type of production Pollard (and his agent) hoped to have.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line: What makes this situation interesting is that the Cowboys have an out in Elliott’s contract in 2023. Should the franchise cut ties with Elliott and commit to Pollard long-term, this could be a big deal. Pollard will be 26 in 2023 and has clearly demonstrated he can play as a fantasy RB1.
His high-end fantasy window could be small but fruitful given what we know. Currently priced as an RB2, it would be wise for managers in startups to invest at this price. Managers in existing leagues will have a harder time prying him away, given that Pollard has long been a speculative dynasty darling.
Miles Sanders, Eagles
- DLF December Startup ADP: RB19, 70.00 overall
- Draft Sharks Dynasty Rank: RB20
Everything we said about Sanders in our most recent Dynasty Buy/Sell/Hold Report rings true here.
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The short of it is that HC Nick Sirianni has helped to reinvent the former Penn State back. He’s seeing much more usage as a pound-the-rock runner over the last 2 seasons, and it’s paying dividends. Sanders’ 2022 campaign marks the first time in his career that he eclipsed both the 200-carry mark and 1,000-rushing yard mark. His future is still rife with concern, however.
After a 2021 season that saw Sanders score 0 TDs, he figured to regress to the mean from a production standpoint this season. He’s pushed well beyond the median bounce-back managers hoped for entering 2022 given his historic precedent. Is this the real Miles Sanders?
Draft Sharks Bottom Line: Sanders is best-suited to return to the Eagles. He’s deviated so far from his initial prospect profile as a satellite-type back at this point that there’s no clear answer as to whether his recent production is sustainable should he sign elsewhere. Sanders also turns 26 this summer and is headed toward the dreaded RB age cliff. There’s too much ambiguity in this situation to feel good about Sanders long-term at this time.
David Montgomery, Bears
- DLF December Startup ADP: RB32, 111.67 overall
- Draft Sharks Dynasty Rank: RB22
Montgomery is a perfectly adequate RB. That’s about it. He’s only ranked in the top 20 of PFF’s rushing grade once in his career. There’s only one stretch of his career in which he’s really performed at an elite level, too.
Montgomery dominated from Week 12 through Week 17 of 2020, winning many fantasy managers their league(s) that season. 19.3% of his career PPR points came in these 6 games. In 58 career games played, that’s nearly one-fifth of his overall fantasy output occurring in about 10% of the games he’s participated in. Outside of those 6 games, Montgomery averages 12.1 PPR points per game. That ranks just behind RB Melvin Gordon at RB31 since 2019.
The other troubling factor at play when discussing Montgomery is the fact that his teammate Khalil Herbert has outplayed him in several measures over the last 2 seasons. Let’s just focus on this year for a moment. Herbert ranks 5th-best in Football Outsiders’ RB DVOA with the 19th-highest breakaway rate (5.6%) among RBs in 2022. He bests Montgomery in both of those metrics by some distance. The question is, just how good is Montgomery? The jury is still out to some degree.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line: Montgomery has not generally been all that great in his career. That said, it’s entirely possible he’s been the victim of circumstance to date. It’s no secret that the Bears have undergone significant changes throughout his tenure. Montgomery has never really had a strong offensive line in front of him, and while that 6-game stretch of elite domination is brief, at least we’ve seen him post the types of high-end numbers you want out of a quality fantasy RB asset.
Odds tell you that Montgomery is staring down a future of being a mop-up duty yards eater akin to a fancy Tevin Coleman. If that’s all he is, then his RB32 price is on par with the RB31 points per game output he’s tallied in his career outside of the 6-game boom in 2020. There’s nothing wrong with that type of player. But those types can be found at younger ages in rookie drafts for an objectively cheaper investment cost relative to Montgomery’s current startup cost. He’s not a bad player per se, but he’s boring.
Devin Singletary, Bills
Damien Harris, Patriots
Kareem Hunt, Browns
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
Jamaal Williams, Lions