Anomaly or New Norm? What to Make of RB Outliers for 2023 (Fantasy Football)

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In this article series, I’m taking a look back at outlier statistics from the 2022 season and attempting to answer the question, “Was it an anomaly, or is this the new norm for the player moving forward?” In the first edition, I took a look at quarterback stats. This time, I’ll be examining running backs, arguably the most important position to research in fantasy football.

The Stats

I’m primarily using efficiency stats in this series. Looking at per-game or per-attempt stats gives us a better understanding of a player’s talent instead of pure volume. Given a running back’s dependence on blocking, game flow, checkdowns, and other team-level attributes, they can be more difficult to isolate, but the stats can still be revealing.

Running backs rack up fantasy points with yardage and touchdowns, both on the ground and through the air. While not perfect, the stats I’m examining in this article are attempts/touchdown, yards/attempt, targets/game, and yards/rec. The table below shows the league average in those metrics among the 47 running backs who carried the ball at least 100 times in 2022.

Statistic 2022 Average
Att/TD 30.3
Yards/Att 4.4
Targets/Game 3.0
Yards/Rec 7.0

Another great stat is expected touchdowns. I won’t be covering it here because Marvin Elequin already did an awesome job covering it for running backs in his article series on the topic.

Let’s dive into the extreme running back stats.

Austin Ekeler: 15.7 Attempts/TD

Jamaal Williams was the poster boy for rushing touchdowns in 2022, but Ekeler was even more efficient. While his 13 rushing touchdowns were four fewer than Williams, he scored them on 58 fewer carries. He scored a touchdown on the ground at nearly double the rate of the NFL average. Of course, Ekeler’s prowess in the passing game only adds to his fantasy appeal. He added another five touchdowns through the air to finish as the RB1 in 2022, following up his overall RB2 performance in 2021.

Anomaly or New Norm?

Ekeler’s 2022 season would feel more like an outlier if he hadn’t done nearly the exact same thing in 2021. The regression that many predicted for Ekeler in 2022 never came. Over his first three seasons, he averaged a touchdown every 44.6 carries. After his past two seasons of elite efficiency, that number has dropped to a touchdown every 23.8 carries. 

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Ekeler has been a rare workhorse back since the departure of Melvin Gordon. Over the past two seasons, he’s averaged a 61% team rush share and a 17% team target share. That isn’t expected to change, as the Chargers haven’t added anybody to their running back room. His insane touchdown rate may drop a bit, but there’s no reason to believe Ekeler won’t remain one of the best fantasy football running backs in the game.

Aaron Jones: 106.5 Attempts/TD

On the completely other end of the spectrum, we find Jones. He rushed for just two touchdowns on 213 attempts in 2022, finding the end zone at a rate more than three times lower than the league average. He was still able to finish as RB9 on the season, thanks in large part to his career-high 1,121 rushing yards and also scoring five times through the air.

Anomaly or New Norm?

At first glance, this looks like an anomaly, especially given Jones’ career average of rushing for a touchdown on every 24.1 attempts. Looking a bit closer, that career average was certainly boosted by the 16 touchdowns he rushed for in 2019. That was when Green Bay was still led by Aaron Rodgers and before they drafted AJ Dillon. Still, it’s tough to envision Jones scoring at a lower rate in 2023, especially since he is the most experienced veteran on an extremely young offense led by a first-time starting quarterback in Jordan Love.

Rhamondre Stevenson: 5.2 Targets/Game

A running back that compiles targets also compiles fantasy points. According to Marvin Elequin’s study on expected fantasy points last year, a target is worth 2.62 times more PPR fantasy points than a rushing attempt. This a major reason why Stevenson finished as RB11 last season, despite scoring just five touchdowns on the ground. The only running backs that outpaced his 5.2 targets/game were Austin Ekeler (7.5), Christian McCaffrey (6.4), and Joe Mixon (5.4). He ended up playing in all 17 games and totaling 88 targets, more than four times as many as the 18 he saw as a rookie. His team target share more than tripled, climbing from 5% as a rookie to 17% last season.

Anomaly or New Norm?

Stevenson finds himself in a completely different situation in the New England backfield heading into 2023. Damien Harris has departed to Buffalo via free agency and wasn’t replaced, which should be a good sign for his workload. The biggest change, however, could be the offensive system. In 2022, New England ran an offense designed by noted defensive coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. It did not go well. 

They are out, and Bill O’Brien, who has run successful offenses in both college and the NFL, is in as offensive coordinator. There’s a real possibility that O’Brien designs a more aggressive offense for Mac Jones, which would cut down on those ever-valuable running back targets. There’s also the chance that Ty Montgomery or Pierre Strong are given the role of pass-catcher out of the backfield. All things considered, it’s difficult to expect Stevenson to see the same target rate in 2023.

Miles Sanders: 3.9 Yards/Rec

Running backs typically have lower yards/rec than primary pass catchers, but Sanders’ 3.9 yards/rec was absurd. For reference, running backs averaged 7.3 yards/rec in 2022. Sanders’ 2022 season ranks 449th among 453 running back seasons with at least 100 carries over the last decade.

Anomaly or New Norm?

Sanders only saw 26 targets last season, so it’s a relatively small sample size. He was targeted 63 times as a rookie, and his targets have declined every season since. During that rookies season, he also averaged a career-high 10.2 yards/rec. That number has also declined every year of his career so far.

However, Sanders finds himself in a completely new situation heading into 2023. In Carolina, he’ll be playing with a rookie quarterback that projects to be more of a pocket passer, as opposed to mobile quarterback Jalen Hurts in Philly. There also aren’t any proven alpha wideouts on Caronina’s roster. There is potential that Sanders contributes more through the air with the Panthers in 2023.

Khalil Herbert: 5.7 Yards/Attempt

Herbert led the entire league in yards/attempt in 2022. He was second in the league with 17.1% of his carries going for 10+ yards, trailing only J.K. Dobbins (18.1%). He had five top-24 running back weeks through the first eight weeks of the season, including finishing as the RB1 in Week 3 against Houston. He suffered a hip injury in Week 10 that cost him four games as he struggled through the end of the season.

Anomaly or New Norm?

Yards/attempt can be a controversial fantasy stat because while a one-yard touchdown dive or a single 60-yard run score the same fantasy points, each dramatically moves the average in a different way. It can also be impacted by offensive line, down and distance, and a variety of other factors outside of a running back’s control.

Herbert’s 5.7 yards/attempt last season was the fifth-highest for a running back with at least 100 carries over the past decade. It was significantly higher than the 4.2 yards/attempt he averaged as a rookie. He also primarily played behind David Montgomery last season, who signed with Detroit this offseason.

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There appears to be a path for Herbert to become the lead back for Chicago, but the Bears also brought in D’Onta Foreman and drafted Roschon Johnson. It’s difficult to imagine Herbert remaining as efficient if his volume increases, but Chicago’s backfield is one of the most challenging to predict for fantasy football. In fact, it could be quarterback Justin Fields that leads the Bears in rushing in 2023.

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