This is a guest post by renowned high stakes fantasy player (both baseball and football), Shawn Childs. Shawn started his own fantasy analyst substack this season with team-by-team projections, cheat sheets, and articles to help prep for your draft. I highly recommend checking it out. ~ Mike
Reading between the tea leaves is a big part of having success in fantasy sports. Understanding the direction of a player, either by his natural progression or his status coming off an injury, can lead to finding a potential value or a player to avoid.
In the early draft season, there tends to be many values as different positions in fantasy football, creating almost a false ADP for someone jumping into drafts in August. The flow players in June and July, before the general public catches up with drafting inventory, are built on different buying opportunities.
As training camp news flows and players start getting positive reviews, the ADPs begin to change, tightening up the player pool and making it more challenging to execute an early draft plan. Once this happens, the better drafters will make trade-offs at specific points in the draft to secure the most critical players for their fantasy team.
Mid-Round Running Backs
This thought process brings me to the running back options after the first 17 or 18 backs come over the table. Typically, in the Best Ball formats that I have been drafting, the running backs come off in this order midway through the fifth round:
- Kenneth Walker
- Alexander Mattison
- Miles Sanders
- Cam Akers
- J.K. Dobbins
- Dameon Pierce
- David Montgomery
- D’Andre Swift
- Javonte Williams
- James Conner
- Rachaad White
- James Cook
- Isiah Pacheco
Behind each player’s name is a skill set and a story, requiring the casual drafter to understand before deciding who to select. These running back aren’t equal, and a couple will become difference-makers in 2023. Here’s my quick back story on each player:
Excellent rookie season showcasing explosive runs and scoring. He struggled in pass protection, and Seattle brought in competition to play on passing downs. In addition, Walker has a slight groin issue in mid-August that is progressing.
Tempting player based on him expected to start for a high-scoring offense and his success at times as a fill-in for Dalvin Cook. He gained 3.7 yards on his last 208 rushing attempts and 6.8 yards per catch over 47 receptions. With Cook still unsigned, Mattison has a higher chance of being a wasted pick in the fifth round than an impact player. If he struggles out the gate, the Vikings could quickly flip to another back.
He now plays in a much lower-scoring offense, leading to a pullback in his scoring. His pass-catching opportunity has been fading over the past three seasons, but Sanders shined in this area (50/509/3) in his rookie season. His third-down potential does support his current price point. He does have a slight groin issue in mid-August.
The coach-speak out of Rams’ camp paints him as a significant part of their offense. His hot finish to 2022 does draw attention, but Akers was also worthless over the first 12 weeks of last season. His college resume shows more upside in catches, but Los Angeles has barely involved their running backs in the passing game since the demise of Todd Gurley. I’m not a fan of their offensive line.
The Ravens placed him on the physically unable to perform list in the latter third of July. Dobbins has been sliding in drafts as he also wants a new contract. On the positive side, Baltimore hinted over the past week that he is getting closer to returning to practice.
As a runner, Pierce helped fantasy teams over the first 10 weeks of last season. His value in the passing game has a low ceiling due to some questions about his pass blocking. Houston also added Devin Singletary to steal some of his touches. Pierce will get his chances in the goal line in their young, developing offense.
The switch to the Lions’ offense bodes well for Montgomery, thanks to an excellent offensive line and a team running back pair in 2022. He has the ability to produce on all three downs, but Jahmyr Gibbs expects to be the shining running back star in this offense. I expect an RB2 floor while beating many backs drafted before him.
The Lions barely used Swift in 2022 (about 34% of the time), but he still finished 21st in running back scoring in PPR formats while missing three games. His pass-catching will be a win for the Eagles’ offense, and he has the highest ceiling of all their backs. More of a risk/reward player while playing for one of the best-scoring teams in the league.
Coming off a significant knee injury, but Williams has 11 months of recovery time before the start of the season. Denver didn’t put him on the physically-unable-to-perform list, and they stated that he would see action in the preseason. Sean Payton features his backs in the passing game, inviting an exciting three-down opportunity for Williams if he is indeed 100% healthy.
The Cardinals don’t have any running back of value behind him on their roster, suggesting Conner will be active on all three downs. He has an injury history, and the Cardinals’ offense has much to prove in 2023. He checks the scoring and pass-catching boxes, so Conner should be helpful until the wheels come off.
I know one fantasy site lists White as their breakout player, but there are many red flags in the Bucs’ offense after losing Tom Brady to retirement in the offseason. First, Tampa will throw the ball 150 to 175 times fewer than last year if Baker Mayfield starts, and their offensive line has more risk than reward. Brady covered up some of this weakness by getting the ball out quickly, with many passes going to his running backs. White will undoubtedly be active, but I don’t see a lot of running room, with questionable upside in scoring. He will be challenged to beat last year’s total in catches (50).
With Damien Harris picking up a knee injury in early August, there is a hint of more upside for Cook. He handled himself well in his rookie season while looking to have the advantage for the pass-catching opportunity for the Bills. Cook brings explosiveness to the table while playing in a high-scoring offense. Buffalo has a running quarterback who snipes scoring chances in close, and Harris should see most of the short-yardage carries when healthy.
The Chiefs are taking it easy in training camp with Pacheco after having shoulder and hand surgeries in the offseason. He has the inside track to the early down carries with a limited role in catches. Kansas City should give him most of the goal-line chances.
This group of running backs will get drafted from the fifth to seventh round in 2023. Each format has different scoring systems and draft flows, leading to sliding price points.
Target Javonte Williams
When searching for the player with the highest ceiling, I want a running back that will lead the team in scoring, have early-down rushing value, and be active in the passing game. The player with the highest upside in this grouping is Javonte Williams.
In his rookie season, in a split role with Melvin Gordon, Williams gained 1,219 combined yards with seven touchdowns and 43 catches on 246 touches. He finished 17th in running back scoring (206.30) in PPR formats, while Gordon ranked 18th in fantasy points (198.70).
Denver signed Samaje Perine in the offseason for running back depth. Over the past three seasons, he worked off the bench as insurance for Joe Mixon, leading to his best overall fantasy season in 2022 (95/394/2 and 38 catches for 287 yards and four scores). Despite his progression, Perine has been in the NFL for six seasons, and his best opportunity (199 touches) came in his rookie season (2017). His experience gives the Broncos a second trusted running back to complement Williams.
Over his sixteen seasons with the New Orleans Saints, running backs have been very active in Sean Payton’s offense with Drew Brees behind center.
- Deuce McAllister (468/1,902/18 ~ 69/458/1 – 36 games)
- Reggie Bush (524/2,090/17 ~ 294/2,142/12 – 60 games)
- Pierre Thomas (818/3,745/28 ~ 327/2,608/12 – 105 games)
- Darren Sproles (188/1,067/5 ~ 232/1,981/16 – 44 games)
- Mark Ingram (1,451/6,500/52 ~ 303/2,125/10 – 123 games)
- Alvin Kamara (1,135/5,135/49 ~ 430/3,753/22 – 88 games)
Typically, Payton likes to rotate two running backs while featuring one option heavily in the passing game.
Williams has started to move up in drafts, especially in the high-stakes market (RB10 over the past week). He runs with power, and his pass-catching in his rookie season highlights his potential floor in Payton’s offense. Denver should give Williams the bulk of chances at the goal line. I have him projected to gain 1,282 combined yards with 11 touchdowns and 50 catches, ranking him 16th at running back. Williams will dart up draft boards once he steps on the field in preseason and shows and spark. In the BestBall drafts at Underdog and DraftKings, he was a steal in the eighth round over the past month.
Honorable Mention James Cook
James Cook has the talent to post impact games, so he has to be in the running back mix in some way due to his potential late in the season. For the record, I have yet to draft Kenneth Walker, Miles Sanders, Alexander Mattison, J.K. Dobbins, Cam Akers, and Dameon Pierce in any drafts because they all were overpriced for my expectations in early August.