2023 fantasy football position preview: Running back

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Our ESPN Fantasy analysts are providing overviews and fantasy football draft strategy for each key position. Be sure to check them all out: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End

As the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, the running back position has undergone a staggering transformation. Smaller backs with receiving chops who can operate in space have become increasingly valuable. Thus, the need for varied skill sets has created a proliferation of committee backfields. Additionally, the market for RBs has shifted with many big-name vets being pushed out of high-volume situations. Those openings have, in turn, created giant opportunities for younger (and less proven) players.

Fantasy football managers now need to account for numerous factors when formulating their approach to the position. But since nothing is static and every season brings its own complexities, I've outlined a position-specific primer. Let's dive in.

Running back draft strategy

I am an anchor-RB enthusiast, a compromise between a robust-RB and zero-RB approach. This strategy advocates for selecting a running back in the first or second round, holding off on the position until the RB "dead zone" (usually Rounds 4-6) before selecting an RB2, and then drafting an RB3 near-ish to the double-digit rounds (8-11). Utilizing this method provides fantasy managers with flexibility, allowing them to prioritize elite players at other positions rather than attaching massive draft capital to the volatile RB landscape.

It's, of course, not a foolproof game plan, but in examining last year's average draft position (ADP), there is evidence it can be successful. Saquon Barkley (RB5 in fantasy points), Nick Chubb (RB6) and Aaron Jones (RB9) were all second-round selections who finished inside the top 12 performers in 2022. Additionally, Josh Jacobs (RB3), Miles Sanders (RB15) and Devin Singletary (RB23) were each dead zone picks that ROI'd. Finally, Tony Pollard (RB8), Rhamondre Stevenson (RB13), and Kenneth Walker III (RB15) were selected outside of the top 85 players overall.

Hitting with exactitude in every round is impossible. But anchor-RB allows managers to invest in ceiling WRs, TEs and QBs, increasing the odds that those players can offset any "misses" at running back.

Top 2023 storylines

Philadelphia's reworked RB room
The Eagles haven't stopped being busy, making substantial moves during free agency and the NFL draft. The team let Miles Sanders walk, despite a career effort in 2022, and instead invested in Rashaad Penny. When healthy, the former Seahawk is one of the most explosive backs in the league (5.7 career yards per carry). Unfortunately, he's managed only 18 games over the past three seasons.

Many assumed this would motivate Philly to draft an RB. GM Howie Roseman, however, had different ideas, trading for D'Andre Swift on Day 3. Swift has certainly dealt with his fair share of injuries, though they've been less serious than Penny's. The former Lion is the favorite to lead the backfield, projecting to be a top-25 option at the position. Penny, on the other hand, is more of an RB3 in the top-35 range.

Question marks in Denver
A popular Year 2 breakout candidate last season, Javonte Williams suffered a season-ending right knee injury in Week 4. Williams continues to rehab the multi-ligament tear, but the timing of his 2023 return remains in question. To combat the issue, Denver added Samaje Perine in free agency. The former Bengal has emerged as a capable backup, recording 38 grabs (tied for 19th among RBs) and four receiving TDs (tied for fifth among RBs) in 2022. Williams' health will significantly impact the fantasy values of both backs.

Tony Pollard's promotion
Maybe the Dallas Cowboys' brass started playing fantasy? Because they seemingly saw what fantasy football heads have been screaming about for years. After Ezekiel Elliott recorded a career-low 3.8 YPC, the Cowboys released him and, ostensibly, promoted Pollard to the lead back role.

Pollard recorded 1,378 scrimmage yards while averaging 14.5 touches per game and closed out 2022 as fantasy's RB8. The 26-year-old underwent ankle surgery in January but is expected to be ready for training camp. With little depth behind him, Pollard enters Year 5 just inside of the top 12 fantasy players at the position.

Austin Ekeler's future in L.A.
Ek sent shockwaves through the fantasy community in March when it was reported that he requested (and was granted) permission to seek a trade. Entering the final year of his deal, Ekeler is owed $6.25 million. As of right now, it appears as though he will have no choice but to stay in L.A. The Chargers appear prepared to enter 2023 with their current RB room, adding only two undrafted free agents (Tyler Hoosman and Elijah Dotson), both of whom will compete to make the team. Accordingly, Ekeler remains a top-three overall pick for fantasy purposes.

Joe Mixon seemingly staying in Cincinnati
Speculation surrounding Mixon's future with the Bengals has been swirling for months. The team has done little to suggest, however, that it is moving on from Mixon. Cincy added Chase Brown in the fifth round of the draft. The 23-year-old rookie has upside but doesn't figure to challenge Mixon for touches in his first season. Consider the vet on the RB1/RB2 fantasy bubble for now.

Breaking down the RB tiers

Every-down RBs are a rare commodity -- without much relative longevity -- in today's NFL. That reality is reflected in the virtual game, creating numerous tiers within the position. At the top, there are only two guys: Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler. That's the only pair of players I'd consider taking before a wide receiver.

The next grouping is five deep: Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, Bijan Robinson, Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry. Each of these players projects to work in an every-down capacity, requiring an early pick in fantasy. Of those names, I'm most excited about Robinson. However, a healthy Taylor paired with Anthony Richardson in Colts coach Shane Steichen's offense certainly screams bounce-back.

My third tier rounds out the top 11 players at the position: Tony Pollard, Nick Chubb, Travis Etienne Jr. and Rhamondre Stevenson. As previously discussed, Pollard is poised for a boost in opportunity and subsequent production. Additionally, Stevenson figures to build on his Year 2 effort (RB13 overall) with Damien Harris off to Buffalo.

After that, it's a cadre of shared backfields and players returning from injury. Kenneth Walker III figures to emerge as a trendy dead zone pick. Miles Sanders could be a solid volume back for the second year in a row. And Jahmyr Gibbs' receiving chops provide fantasy managers with RB2 upside. Ultimately, however, sifting through tiers four and beyond requires tracking training camp updates and listening for drum beats.

Potential breakouts

James Cook, RB, Buffalo Bills
Cook recorded the highest breakaway run rate (12.1%) and an electric 5.3 true yards per carry (second among RBs) last season. Lauded for his natural hands and advanced route tree, Cook figures to thrive as the Bills' 1A alongside the aforementioned Harris. Devin Singletary's departure sets the second-year player up for consistent double-digit touches on one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

Rachaad White, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Arizona State product emerged down the stretch of 2022, averaging 12.6 fantasy points per game in Weeks 10-17. A deft pass-catcher with eagle-eye vision in the open field, White figures to post solid numbers despite playing on what's likely to be an inefficient offense. He's in line for at least 16 touches per contest with Leonard Fournette gone and little other competition on the roster.

De'Von Achane, RB, Miami Dolphins
Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are obvious rookie breakouts. Achane is more of a sleeper pick. A track standout at Texas A&M, the former Aggie is a blazer (4.32-second 40-yard dash). He also has awesome vision and undeniable elusiveness, making him a nightmare to contain in space. He'll begin behind Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., but given the vets' respective ages and injury histories, Achane could emerge as a fantasy star down the stretch.

Potential concerns

Breece Hall, RB, New York Jets
The bulk of my concerns are centered around players returning from injury. As already discussed, Javonte Williams' health is one of this season's biggest mysteries. Hall, on the other hand, is expected to be ready for the season opener. However, a player's return to sport is different from a player's return to target level of performance. It wouldn't surprise me if Hall starts the season slowly, which is why I have him ranked outside of my top 15 players at the position.

Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans
The Florida product immediately dominated the Texans' backfield, garnering an opportunity share of 73.8% (sixth at RB) while clearing 100 total yards in six of 13 games in 2022. Unfortunately, an ankle injury suffered in Week 11 derailed Pierce's rookie effort. While he figures to be fully recovered by the fall, so much has changed within the organization. From the coaching staff to the QB to the arrival of Devin Singletary, the specifics of Pierce's role have yet to come into focus. His power and tackle-breaking ability figure to be leaned upon, but his overall volume could take a hit.

Follow Liz on Twitter: @LizLoza_FF