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Fantasy Football Draft Preview: Running Backs

By Kevin English 1:28pm EDT 8/15/23

Few Workhorse RBs Remain

Last year, only three RBs hit 300 carries …

  • Derrick Henry
  • Josh Jacobs
  • Nick Chubb

We haven’t seen more than three RBs hit 300 carries since 2012 (five).

Frankly, that’s just fine.

Catches > Carries

On average, one rush attempt has equaled 0.62 PPR points over the past five seasons. 

A target? Nearly 1.60 PPR points.

Over the same stretch, RB1s averaged 55.8 catches per season. 

Sure, it’s rare to see a strict third-down back crack RB1 territory. Over the same five-year stretch, RB1s have averaged 237 carries and 9.43 rushing TDs per season.

But savvy fantasy owners know to pursue meaningful receiving production.

What Do Our Numbers Say?

Head to the RB rankings (Printable Grid view), and you’ll see we have four RBs projected to hit 55+ catches:

  • Austin Ekeler
  • Christian McCaffrey
  • Jahmyr Gibbs
  • Rhamondre Stevenson

We’re OK with three of those four at cost. McCaffrey, our Early Round Bust, is the lone exception.

As for the others: Can they supply enough advantage over another position to make them smash picks (again, cost considered)? 

If your answer is no, you might be heading toward a Zero-RB build …

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Zero-RB Strategy: Does it Hold Value in 2023?

Truth be told, whether you implement a Zero-RB strategy depends on several key factors.

Chief among them: Your league’s scoring rules and starting-lineup requirements. 

Maybe you play in a unique league where you’re required to start only one RB and two WRs. Plus four Flex spots.

Assuming full PPR, your Draft War Room will push WRs up the board. Simple supply-and-demand says they’re much more valuable than RBs.

League Type Matters

Best ball vs. lineup-setting matters immensely

In a best ball league, you’re stuck with the same roster all season. So if you wait until Round 8 or later to draft your first RB, you can’t fix a likely weakness.

Instead, you’re banking on early-round RBs underperforming – and high-end WRs delivering elite numbers.

In a lineup-setting league, you can aggressively pursue RBs in-season (trade, waiver wire, FAAB). If you’re going to implement a true Zero-RB strategy, that’s the place we recommend it.

We’re just not entering any draft locked into a specific strategy. 

Plus, given a typical fantasy setup, we believe 2023 will be a down year for the Zero-RB strategy.

Hero-RB Strategy

In a hero-RB strategy, you take an early-round RB (primarily Round 1 or 2). Then, you’re waiting until the middle rounds to continue addressing the position.

So for this year, you might use a mid-Round 1 pick on Bijan Robinson. From there, you might wait until Round 7 to take James Cook.

Again, we’re not forcing any player in any round. One of our core tenets is placing value above all else, meaning it’s paramount that you remain flexible throughout your draft.

Handcuffing RBs

When you handcuff a player in a fantasy football draft, you select their direct backup. Typically, handcuffing is only advisably when there’s a clear No. 2 on the depth chart.

We’re mainly talking about RBs, but cases exist across all positions. For example, a QB handcuff is OK in a deep superflex (2-QB) format. A TE handcuff is OK in a TE-premium setup.

Here are some examples:

QB Handcuffs

  • Mike White
  • Marcus Mariota

RB Handcuffs

  • Samaje Perine
  • Jaylen Warren
  • Tank Bigsby
  • Tyler Allgeier
  • Tyjae Spears
  • Zamir White

WR Handcuffs

  • Tyler Boyd
  • Curtis Samuel
  • Michael Gallup
  • Donovan Peoples-Jones
  • K.J. Osborn
  • Marvin Mims
  • Corey Davis

TE Handcuffs

  • Isaiah Likely
  • Jonnu Smith
  • Noah Gray

Sleeper Running Backs

Sometimes handcuffs are also the best sleeper running backs.

Think Zamir White or Tyjae Spears. For now, they look one injury (or Josh Jacobs holdout) away from starting.

Other times, an uncertain backfield produces a sleeper running back.

Two fitting RBs – Rashaad Penny and Antonio Gibson – made our list of fantasy football sleepers

Let’s hit on a few deep sleepers ahead.

TIP

Sleepers are designated on your Draft War Room cheat sheet with a “zZ” icon

Kyren Williams, Rams

Williams appears on track for the Rams’ RB2 job.

But don’t treat him like a strict handcuff. Take a look at this quote from beat writer Cam DaSilva:

“It felt like every day, Williams was making a play as a receiver in practice,” DaSilva said via USA Today. “It’s obvious that he’s going to be the Rams’ third-down back, which will earn him opportunities as a receiver and pass blocker in the backfield.”

The Rams roll out a thin pass-catching corps – and a young defense that projects as one of the league’s worst. So game flow could push PPR-friendly work to Williams, even without a Cam Akers injury.

Jordan Mason, 49ers

No, Mason isn’t even Christian McCaffrey’s backup.

That’s Elijah Mitchell … for now.

But Mitchell is already banged up with an adductor injury. We’re not expecting him to miss Week 1. But Mitchell’s injury history says there’s serious cause for concern. 

Mason will have to hold off Ty Davis-Price, who’s also worth monitoring as a deep sleeper. San Francisco selected Davis-Price in Round 3 just last year, well ahead of Mason (undrafted).

Both backups have enjoyed strong training camps, although Mason drew the start in Week 1 of the preseason. 

As for their rookie year ...

Mason blew away Davis-Price with eye-opening efficiency. Mason averaged 6.0 yards per carry on 43 attempts and finished fourth among RBs in Pro Football Focus rushing grade.

TDP posted 34 carries for 99 yards. Both marks ranked sixth on the team.

Overall, this environment looks ripe for fantasy production. In his six seasons as HC, Kyle Shanahan’s units have ranked top-14 in rush attempts five times. They’ve never finished worse than 17th in team yards per carry.

Deuce Vaughn, Cowboys

Surprising nobody, Vaughn looked electric in the preseason opener.

Don't expect a ton of carries for the 5’5, 180-pounder. But he could carve out a pass-catching role for a Cowboys squad lacking depth behind Tony Pollard.

(Recent signings of Dalvin Cook and Zeke Elliott only help the rookie’s case for snaps by taking key veterans off the market.)

And if Pollard goes down, Vaughn just might be the favorite for passing-down work.

 

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