Fantasy Football: Examining Strength of Schedule for RBs in 2023

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You don’t win your fantasy football league at the draft. It’s a mantra this time of year. A related tip frequently discussed on the show is viewing the season in manageable short-term “chunks.” That’s exactly what this article series is about.

I look at each position in four-week “chunks.” Weeks 1-4 are the start of the season when you set the tone. Starting hot is ideal but not necessarily required for active managers. Weeks 5-8 and 9-12 are the heart of the season when fantasy managers jockey for position and make key moves. Weeks 13-17 are the time to make a run through the fantasy playoffs and secure that #FootClanTitle.

I’m going position by position in this series, first looking back at last season before looking ahead to the 2023 season. I already covered quarterbacks, so in this edition, it’s running backs. The table shows where they ranked within the position during each four-week sample size of the season. It includes bye weeks and games missed to injuries. The last stretch is five weeks because of the odd 17-game season, and Week 18 is ignored, as no league should be competing in that final week of the NFL season.


Austin Ekeler was consistently elite all season long. Amazingly, he was never worse than RB5 over any quarter of the season and RB3 or better over each of the last three quarters. He could become the first player to finish as the RB1 in back-to-back seasons since Todd Gurley accomplished the feat in 2018.

Christian McCaffrey had a rough stretch from Weeks 9-12. That stretch included his Week 9 bye and his worst outing of the season against New Orleans in Week 12. Hopefully, most CMC managers didn’t panic, as he more than made up for it by finishing as the RB1 over the final quarter of the season.

Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry were both super consistent. This makes sense when you realize these were the only two running backs with at least 340 carries on the season. They were bell cow backs that stayed healthy all season long. Find one of these and you’ve found an elite fantasy running back.

Jamaal Williams was the definition of a fantasy football roller coaster ride. He completely fell on his face during the fantasy playoffs.

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You won’t find them in the above table, but Jerick McKinnon and Cam Akers both finished strong. McKinnon never finished above RB24 over the first 12 weeks of the season, then never finished worse than RB21 from Weeks 13-17, including two RB1 performances. It was a similar story for Akers, who wasn’t fantasy relevant in any way for the first twelve weeks but was the RB4 from Weeks 13-17.

Conversely, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Alvin Kamara had some hot stretches early in 2022 before burning out. CEH was the RB4 over the first four weeks, and Kamara the RB1 from Weeks 5-8. Kamara was up and down all season, but CEH completely evaporated after Week 4, averaging just 3.5 fantasy points from Weeks 5-11, then never seeing the field again for the rest of the season.

Positional Strength of Schedule 

So how do we use this for 2023 drafts? One way is to examine the strength of schedule (SOS) for the upcoming season. There are a plethora of SOS metrics and resources available, but most of them focus on the entirety of the season. I used the Strength of Schedule tool found in the Ultimate Draft Kit, which allows you to select and sort both by position and by different weeks. It is based on how teams performed against each position last year, and since teams have had player and coaching changes, it isn’t perfect. However, it is easier to trust early in the season, before the injuries, trades, and chaos that is an NFL season are in full swing.

Once we see the teams with the most and least favorable opening schedules, we can use that as input in the draft process. A team with a favorable SOS for a position is a definite bonus, and players from that team should get a bump. Likewise, you may want to slightly fade players that could get off to a slow start. 

Early season targets

You don’t want your running backs to get off to a slow start. Luckily, running back is one of the more predictable positions in fantasy football, at least in the early rounds. It may be difficult to predict defensive improvements, but here are the running backs that project to get off to a hot start in 2023 based on last season’s performances.

JK Dobbins – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 1st

In the quarterback edition of this article, I pointed out that Lamar Jackson has a tough SOS over the first four weeks. Conversely, the teams Baltimore faces over the first four weeks were weak against running backs last year. Dobbins could run all over Houston in Week 1, and then he gets two more bottom-ten teams from last season with Indianapolis and Cleveland. 

Najee Harris – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 2nd

On paper, Harris has the worst matchup possible against the 49ers in Week 1. The fact that he has the second-best SOS over the first quarter of the season should tell you just how soft his next three matchups project. If you draft Harris, be prepared for a rough opener, but he should bounce back against Cleveland, Las Vegas, and Houston.

Travis Etienne, Tank Bigsby – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 3rd

The Jaguars have an easy schedule for their running backs over the first four weeks.  It does include Kansas City, who will likely be favored in Week 2. However, It also includes Houston in Week 3, who was the best fantasy matchup for running backs last season. This is largely an Etienne take, but Bigsby could get some early season run if Jacksonville is in positive game scripts.

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Jonathan Taylor – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 4th

As of this writing, JT is away from the team for an “excused personal matter.” As arguably the biggest Taylor truther in the industry, I really hope he’s in line to play for Indy in Week 1. If he is, the schedule sets up nicely. Just like the other three mentioned above, it includes the Texans. If new head coach DeMeco Ryans fixes Houston’s run defense, all of the running backs featured here could be in trouble.

Derrick Henry – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 10th

This will be brief. Henry’s early season schedule is slightly above average. However, he has the best schedule for running backs over the entire season. He faces the Texans twice in the fantasy playoffs, so just stash that away in case DeMeco Ryans doesn’t fix Houston’s run defense in year one.

Slow Start Trade/Waiver Targets

As described earlier in this article, some good running backs will get off to bad starts. That doesn’t mean they’re doomed for the entire season. A lot can change over the course of the season, especially for running backs, but here are the players that project to face the toughest schedule over the first four weeks.

James Conner – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 32nd

Conner faces three of the four toughest fantasy running back defensive matchups from last season to open the season. Arizona is projected to be the worst team in the NFL and may not have their franchise quarterback Kyler Murray early in the season. I’m not a Conner fan in a vacuum, and when the opening schedule against the Commanders, Giants, Cowboys, and 49ers is considered, I’m completely out.

Nick Chubb – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 31st

Chubb is one of the most interesting running backs when considering SOS. According to last season, he has four consecutive rough matchups in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Baltimore to open the season. What’s intriguing is the fact that he has a Week 5 bye, then has the second-best schedule for running backs over the rest of the season. I’m going to have patience with Chubb if I draft him, and try to trade for him in Week 5 if I don’t.

Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook – Weeks 1-4 SOS: 30th

The Jets have a brutal start against the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, and Chiefs to start the season. The good news? If you draft Breece Hall after his 2022 torn ACL, you are doing so for the end of the season anyways. The bad news? You might not want to put too much faith in Dalvin Cook as a fantasy contributor early in the season.

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