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AFC North Running Backs (RBs): A Fantasy Football Breakdown

By Kevin English 5:24pm EDT 8/7/23

AFC North Running Backs Bring Fantasy Upside

Collectively, AFC North running backs might be the best of any division league-wide.

Look at our fantasy football RB rankings, and you’ll see all four AFC North lead backs crack the top 15.

No other division can make that claim.

So, let’s dig into J.K. Dobbins, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, and Najee Harris – plus key backups – for clues on their 2023 production …

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Baltimore Ravens Running Backs

Top Fantasy RB target: J.K. Dobbins
Others in the mix: Gus Edwards, Melvin Gordon, Keaton Mitchell

Effective … When Healthy

Injuries have limited Dobbins to 23 games as a pro.

Most notably, he missed all of 2021 and a chunk of 2022 with multiple torn knee ligaments. The 24-year-old needed a follow-up surgery in October to remove scar tissue.

Upon returning in Week 14, Dobbins averaged 91.8 yards over the final five games, including the playoff loss. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry over that stretch. And he did so without Lamar Jackson.

Dobbins now brings the potential for more receiving work under new OC Todd Monken. Still, the question remains …

When Will Dobbins Show Up?

Ian Rapoport confirmed last Thursday that Dobbins’ training camp absence is more about his contract than an injury.

Here’s the positive: Dobbins and HC John Harbaugh have stayed in touch throughout camp. There’s no bad blood, as Dobbins said earlier this year he wants to remain in Baltimore.

For now, we’re not anticipating a regular season holdout. 

If that proves true, Dobbins should outperform his Underdog Fantasy ADP of RB22.

Uninspiring Depth

Edwards suffered his own ACL tear in September 2021. He didn’t return until last October but remains on track for the No. 2 role.

Per ESPN reporter Jamison Hensley, Edwards is “expected to be at full speed” for the regular season. 

Edwards has been an efficient runner. But there’s no receiving upside, which puts extra emphasis on TDs – and Edwards’ hitting pre-injury form.

What about the rest?

We’re not expecting much from Melvin Gordon. He signed for no guaranteed money after struggling with fumbles in Denver.

Now 30, Gordon didn’t touch the ball once after getting scooped up by the Chiefs in November.

Hill, 27 in November, enters the fall with 119 career carries. No thanks.

Mitchell's tape looks electric, and his athletic testing showed elite speed and burst. Still, we're talking about an undrafted free agent standing 5'8 and 191 pounds.

Don't Enter Any Draft Without a Plan

Cleveland Browns Running Backs

Top Fantasy RB target: Nick Chubb
Others in the mix: Jerome Ford, veteran free agent?

Still Goin’ Strong

Over the past five seasons, Chubb ranks second in rushing yards (6,341).

His 5.2 yards per carry tops any RB in the top 30.

You might fear the cliff is near for a 27-year-old with 1,329 career touches. 

But where’s evidence of a 2023 decline? Last year, Chubb led the league in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA, a metric showing per-rush value.

Kareem Hunt Moves On

The Browns let Hunt walk in free agency. Team insider Terry Pluto cited team sources saying that Hunt’s speed was “slipping.”

Perhaps. (Hunt did record a career-low 3.8 yards per carry.) Now, will Ford slide into Hunt's old role?

TIP

Kareem Hunt vacates 123 carries and 44 targets from 2022.

New Backup

We didn’t see much from Ford as a Round 5 rookie. The former Alabama recruit with 4.46 speed is a name to keep an eye on, though.

"[I] feel really good about Jerome Ford," GM Andrew Berry said this summer. "Had a strong spring, pass protection especially. We think his receiver skills are strong." 

Sounds promising, although HC Kevin Stefanski said as recently as Sunday that the third-down role is unsettled.

Then came Monday's practice and an apparent hamstring injury. We’ll see if Cleveland pokes around the free-agent market. But entering Monday, Ford appeared unchallenged for the RB2 role. 

If Ford recovers quickly, we’re buying both Cleveland RBs at cost.

Cincinnati Bengals Running Backs

Top Fantasy RB target: Joe Mixon
Others in the mix: Trayveon Williams, Chase Brown, Chris Evans, veteran free agent?

Once a cut candidate, Mixon is set to enter another season as Cincy’s lead back.

One More High-End Season?

Ask for expectations, and Mixon will say to look for another hefty workload. Frankly, that’s critical for guy who just posted a career-low rate of missed tackles forced.

"Look at the year we went to the Super Bowl [2021]. That's literally what you'll see this year. If not more. You'll see more," said Mixon, who hit 334 regular-season touches that year. “But I've always had a big role in this offense. That will never change. At least while I'm here.”

Look at the depth chart, and it’s tough to disagree with Mixon’s premise.

Unproven Depth

Samaje Perine signed with Denver, leaving 133 touches and 51 targets behind.

Williams looked like the early favorite, but he’s currently sidelined with an Aug. 1 ankle sprain.

The former Round 6 pick owns 55 career touches through three seasons, so a breakthrough 2023 would be an outlier.

Brown, a late-career breakout at Illinois, carries the most fantasy appeal. He tested excellently at the NFL Combine and brings the size to hold up in pass protection. That will be key for anyone aiming to pick up Mixon’s scraps.

*Percentiles among Combine RBs since 1999.

Evans enters Year 3 without much buzz. He has totaled 35 touches through two seasons.

If Cincy isn’t impressed with the depth, don’t be surprised if they sign a veteran.

Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs

Top Fantasy RB target: Najee Harris
Others in the mix: Jaylen Warren, Anthony McFarland

Underwhelming 2022

Harris’ receiving production predictably dropped without Ben Roethlisberger. He earned 94 targets in 2021; 53 in 2022.

He played all 17 games both seasons.

The former Round 1 pick didn’t show progress as a runner, either. He fell short of 4.0 yards per carry for the second straight year and ranked below average in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA (30th among 42 qualifiers) and success rate (38th).

But did he have a legit excuse?

Najee Harris Foot Injury

Harris sustained a Lisfranc sprain in 2022 training camp. He says it threw off his entire second season.

“My conditioning wasn't the best because I missed almost four weeks 'cause of my Lisfranc, and I couldn't run,” Harris said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "So, the conditioning was not at its best. The details were not at the best either. Details, what I mean by that … like my aiming points, my reads and stuff like that just because I missed so many weeks of practice … I came in kind of slow because, I mean, I didn't have time. It was timing. I wasn’t working with O-line … I didn't have that bonding period.”

Word out of Pittsburgh is that we should expect another run-leaning offense. So Harris’ workload (and high-end RB2 prospects) shouldn’t suffer significantly.

Still, there’s a particular backup who’s lurking …

Strong Rookie Debut

Warren added an explosive element to the backfield. 

He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, with a PFF elusive rating that ranked eighth among 55 RBs with 75+ carries.

He added 28 catches (on 34 targets) while earning praise from HC Mike Tomlin for his pass blocking.

That’s continued this camp, where Tomlin has taken note of his "highly competitive" energy.

“The minute he starts exhaling is when he and we are gonna have major issues, Tomlin said. “I like the energy [he's] bringing, he's sustained it."

There’s a chance Warren scraps his way to weekly PPR flex value. Add his handcuff value, and the second-year man becomes a fine later-round stash.

The Other Guy

McFarland played the past two seasons under Matt Canada, who was his OC for a year at Maryland. McFarland has managed just nine total carries over those two years, making him easy to ignore in 2023.

Ultimately, we’re targeting several AFC North running backs for fantasy.

Cost considered, that includes:

  • Nick Chubb
  • Joe Mixon
  • J.K. Dobbins
  • Jerome Ford
  • Jaylen Warren

Know When to Draft ALL RBs

Getting custom RB values for your fantasy football league doesn’t have to be hard. Take a few minutes to watch the video below, and you’ll be an expert on our dynamic Draft War Room:

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