AFC South Running Backs (RBs): A Fantasy Football Breakdown
AFC South Running Backs Present Plenty of Questions
The AFC South running backs should be a fairly exciting group. Should be ...
Jonathan Taylor seemed a shoo-in for a bounce back. But he has yet to take the field in training camp.
Travis Etienne is a former first-round pick who took over the backfield last year. But will a new guy challenge his role?
Derrick Henry still looks like Derrick Henry. But is the cliff inevitable?
And we'll start with the division's other team ... with the biggest question being whether it can be dramatically better than last year ...
Our Draft War Room is a dynamic, customizable cheat sheet that will show you exactly when to target AFC South RBs -- and all other players -- in YOUR league.
Houston Texans Running Backs
Top fantasy RB target: Dameon Pierce
Others in the mix: Devin Singletary
How Good is Dameon Pierce?
Pierce had a nice first season for a fourth-round rookie, especially in a bad offense. But it’s also possible to overrate his performance.
Pierce ranked 10th among all RBs in opportunity share (adjusted for missed games). Despite missing the final four games, he ranked 13th among RBs in carries and finished 16th in total rushing yards.
But he ranked just 21st in PPR and half-PPR points per game and 19th in non-PPR points per game. Pierce also checked in 30th in Football Outsiders’ effective yards, and 37th in rushing DYAR and DVOA, among 42 qualifiers.
Pierce also went light on receiving, ranking just 30th among RBs in targets. He trailed Rex Burkhead by 12 for the season and led Dare Ogunbowale by only 13.
Still the Guy
Houston signed Devin Singletary to a one-year deal in free agency, but Pierce has remained the clear backfield leader. The Texans confirmed that by not playing him at all in Thursday night’s preseason opener. (Singletary started the game.)
Pierce has reportedly worked to improve his pass-blocking and receiving this offseason. We’d bet on the second-year back stopping short of full workhorse duties, but he’s lining up to clearly lead the backfield work for an offense that should improve – if only because it was one of the league’s worst in 2022.
If Pierce gets close to 10th in opportunity share again, he’ll prove a good value at an ADP of RB18 or later.
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Best of the Rest?
Singletary took six of the first seven RB opportunities in the preseason opener, yielding just one target to Ogunbowale (on a play negated by a Patriots penalty).
That positions the veteran as the clear No. 2 back, which we’ve assumed since he arrived.
Singletary was a merely solid performer in Buffalo, leading the Bills backfield in carries and targets over his four seasons. He managed to get only $2.75 million on a one-year deal in free agency and doesn’t appear to be challenging Pierce’s role.
Singletary looks merely OK as a later-round handcuff in fantasy football drafts.
What Else You Got?
Ogunbowale was next in against New England, garnering some passing-down work. Mike Boone sits ahead of him (third) on the “unofficial” depth chart but entered the preseason opener after Ogunbowale – and not until the second drive with QB Davis Mills.
Boone flashed a few years ago with the Vikings, but he’s a 28-year-old with 99 career carries.
He’ll likely need to hold off younger backs Xazavian Valladay and Gerrid Doaks for a regular-season roster spot.
Indianapolis Colts Running Backs
Top fantasy RB target: Jonathan Taylor
Others in the mix: Evan Hull, Kenyan Drake, Zack Moss, Deon Jackson
What Happened to Jonathan Taylor?
A month ago, Indy’s star RB looked like a prime bounce-back candidate. There was no early signal of last year’s ankle injury lingering into this year and no worrisome competition.
But then training camp started … without Taylor.
We got a barrage of reports about how unhappy he is with his contract status and – seemingly – franchise leadership. Team owner Jim Irsay made public comments that made it easy to understand why Taylor might be perturbed.
And then came reports that Taylor is still working back from his ankle trouble.
The contract squabble – including a trade request – leaves us with no idea how much of an issue that ankle actually is. And we’re all totally guessing at whether it’s fine to go ahead and draft Taylor and assume he’ll return by the regular season.
Injuries Strike the Backups
The non-Taylor Colts backfield lacks clarity.
Camp opened with Zack Moss and Deon Jackson competing atop the depth chart. But Moss broke his right wrist in late July and might remain out into the regular season.
Jackson’s now dealing with a quad injury that’s expected to keep him out of the preseason opener. We’ll see how long that remains an issue.
Indy signed veteran Kenyan Drake after the start of training camp and hosted Kareem Hunt for a recent visit. The Colts are clearly still trying to figure out this position while Taylor is out.
Did They Draft the Answer?
We haven’t come across much buzz on fifth-round rookie Evan Hull from training camp, though the focus on QB Anthony Richardson might make it tougher to notice other offensive pieces.
Hull enjoyed a strong final two college seasons, though. He operated as Northwestern’s workhorse each of those years, racking up 417 carries and 88 catches. Hull led FBS RBs in targets and receptions last year.
Then he rocked a 4.47-second 40 time at 210 pounds at the Scouting Combine, giving Hull an 80th-percentile speed score for the position.
He’ll be worth watching through the preseason, especially if Taylor doesn’t return.
Jacksonville Jaguars Running Backs
Top fantasy RB target: Travis Etienne
Others in the mix: Tank Bigsby, JaMycal Hasty, D’Ernest Johnson
Less Work Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
It’s a virtual lock that Travis Etienne will carry the ball less this year than he did after last season’s James Robinson trade.
From that point on, Etienne logged 74% of Jacksonville’s carries. Interestingly, his target share actually dipped over the same span – from 8.9% before the trade to 6.5% after.
That would be more alarming if not for reports that Etienne has gotten some work with the WRs in training camp.
He caught 102 passes across four seasons at Clemson and plays with his college QB, Trevor Lawrence, in Jacksonville. So it would be strange if the Jags didn’t plan to throw Etienne the ball a fair amount.
HC Doug Pederson has said multiple times this offseason that he wants to get more RBs involved this year. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In addition to Etienne’s abnormally heavy rushing load late last season, Pederson commonly used committee backfields as Philly’s coach.
We’re not betting on a return to that here.
But Jacksonville did draft Tank Bigsby in Round 3. The 6-foot, 210-pounder spent three seasons as Auburn’s lead back, averaging 5.4 yards per rush in a deteriorating offense and growing into the Tigers’ reception leader in his final season (30 catches).
Bigsby brings enough speed, power, and receiving ability to be a factor. But we’re not expecting him to challenge Etienne’s lead role.
Both young backs make plenty of sense around ADP. And we’re not interested in the other Jaguars RBs unless Etienne or Bigsby gets hurt.
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Tennessee Titans Running Backs
Top fantasy RB target: Derrick Henry
Others in the mix: Tyjae Spears
Veteran Can’t Find the Cliff
Derrick Henry has been a popular pick to regress or decline for at least each of the past three years. That widespread feeling has helped him remain a nice fantasy football value. And that’s true again this year.
Henry didn’t show any meaningful decline last year. His 21.8 carries per game were down vs. the previous two seasons. But that should just mean the Titans realized 27.4 per game (in 2021) is too much for any human.
Henry’s 4.4 yards per carry was down vs. his tremendous 2019 and 2020 campaigns. But it was right in line with his 2021 (before the foot fracture). And Henry’s rush yards over expected actually increased in 2022.
If the 29-year-old were still going in the middle of Round 1, then he might be worth fading.
But Henry’s ADP sits in the middle of Round 2 in most formats. And he has sunk as low as Round 3 on some best ball sites.
We’re definitely buyers at those levels.
Titans Might Have Drafted an Heir
This offseason started with rumors of Henry being on the trade block. It’s likely Tennessee had trouble finding a team willing to take on his contract in this RB market, though.
We’ll see if anything changes in-season on that front – especially if the Titans start to lose games.
If Henry were to move on or get hurt, rookie Tyjae Spears figures to step up as the lead back.
No one will ever mistake the 5’10, 201-pounder for Henry. But Tennessee made him the fifth RB drafted in Round 3, despite concerns about the long-term health of Spears’ right knee.
Explosive Finish at Tulane
That followed a college career in which Spears averaged 6.8 yards per carry and 11.8 per reception. He didn’t become a true feature back until his final season at Tulane. But Spears leveraged the opportunity into these stats:
Rushing: 229 carries, 1,581 yards, 19 TDs, 6.9 per rush
Receiving: 22 catches, 256 yards, 2 TDs, 11.6 per reception
Spears figures to earn some kind of role this year, but don’t expect a big one as long as Henry’s healthy. Tennessee gave just 61 carries to other RBs last season, and that was with Henry missing a game.
Henry also topped 2 receptions per game each of the past two years, after never doing so across his first five.
Know When to Draft YOUR RBs
Whether you're eyeing AFC South running backs or any others, you need to know exactly where they fit in your specific roster build.
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